(In)Famous Last Words
“I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
Infamous last words. A line we’ve all said and nodded knowingly to as we watch others commit a suicide of the soul unaware. We agree because on some level we believe that hope is reckless, that good sense would dictate that it should be avoided, that it is only hope that causes the emotional plummet when disappointed. It’s one thing to have events not go your way; it’s another thing to carry an unfulfilled hope. Better not to hope at all.
Disappointment is hard to bear because of its accompanying feelings of grief and shame and humiliation. Disappointment accuses us of foolishness; of unfounded optimism when cold hard pragmatism would have been an emotional shield from failure. Something didn’t happen which you were counting on. Someone didn’t come through. Sometimes it feels as if God didn’t come through. He didn’t protect you. He didn’t give you what you wanted. Somehow, disappointment always feels like a betrayal.
As such, hope is a thorny word.
It is only human nature--our fleshly wisdom--to protect ourselves from disappointment because we imagine that we will be able to limit the amount of pain we will experience when the floor drops out from below. We cauterize our hearts against hope believing that we are protecting ourselves. If I don’t hope, I can’t be disappointed. If I don’t hope, I can’t be hurt. We think we’re being pragmatic; facing life head on without wishful thinking. We think that we’re being realistic. We think we’re showing the wisdom of our experience.
We’re actually being deceived.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Mark Twain)
The attack on hope is nothing less than one of the devil’s schemes; tempting us into a kind of resignation that says things like, “Well, whatever is going to happen is going to happen regardless.” Don’t hope. Don’t believe. Don't risk yourself that way. And so, we abort our hopes like unborn children and then try to go on as though we carry no phantom pain.
The resulting repercussions are many. Resignation is only one step above despair.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13:12)
Putting off hope is deadly. Heartsickness is an ailing at the core of an individual. An illness of body, soul and spirit. We cannot live without heart. It might limp along for a while, but when it fails, there is no alternative. Hope is the antidote to despair.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Faith is the evidence of our hope. It is the proof. Hope is the prerequisite for faith that is essential for pleasing God.
“Without faith it is impossible to please God; because anyone who comes to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.”
The rest of the chapter goes on to mention by name and detail the feats of faith of almost every major figure from the Old Testament.
“All these died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar.” (Hebrews 11:13)
And yet, what they did see and receive was worth recording in scripture.
"...who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight, Women received back their dead by resurrection..." (Hebrews 11:33-35a)
But those miraculous answers from God paled in comparison to the promise of what was still to come. There is a dangerous tendency as Christians to limit our expectations of God because we’re neurotically afraid we might get something wrong and then maybe God won’t come through and our faith will be shaken. We don't want that for ourselves and we don't want it for others either.
And so we neglect encouraging others to hope--whether it is for healing, or a spouse, or children or a career path or ministry--lest that particular thing isn’t ‘in God’s will’ and disappointment sours faith into bitterness. Better not to hope at all: Lower your expectations just in case we find God inadequate.
God must be sick of our incredibly low expectations of Him already.
"And because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles among them..." (Mark 6:5a)
When Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that their brother was sick to the point of death, they were already His friends. They knew who He was. They knew what He could do. They knew that He loved them and that He would care about Lazarus’ desperate need. You can imagine their hopes as they sent urgent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one that you love is sick.”
Lord, please come and heal him.
You can imagine as they waited. Counting the days and the hours that might pass before Jesus could be reasonably expected to arrive to heal their brother. Hours painfully ticking by as Lazarus grew weaker as his immune system lost the battle. Watching through the night, counting on the Healer to show up in the nick of time and save his friend. You can also imagine the crushing weight of disappointment that fell upon Mary and Martha when Lazarus died and still there was no sign or word from Jesus.
Disappointment. Grief. Four days past hope. Four days overdue. Four days interred in the tomb before word reaches the sisters that Jesus is near and Martha runs the two miles to meet Him on the way.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
But here is the moment when true hope reveals itself and fans into flame even the faintest flicker of faith.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask for from God, God will give you.”
She’s asking for a bigger miracle than healing. She’s asking for a miracle that quashes the expectations of the possible.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
And Martha has the same questions that we do. Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again and she doesn’t know if that is hope for the spiritual future or hope for the temporal; hope for eternal life or for a resurrection right now.
Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.”
She knows about future hope. It’s the present hope that feels the most uncertain; but in Jesus, they are one and the same.
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live and everyone who lives and believes in me, shall never die.”
And then He asks the crucial question: “Do you believe this?”
“Yes Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
The question of our present circumstances is answered in the identity of Jesus.
Even now, even four days in the grave. Is there something you can do?
It is hope that causes the pursuit. It is hope in who Jesus is that causes Martha to run two miles outside of Bethany to ask Jesus for a greater miracle. It is the same hope that caused the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years to push through the crowd and reach out in faith. It is hope that caused the four friends to take up their invalid companion and carry him up onto a roof and take the building apart in order to get their need in front of the One who could do something about it.
Then Mary comes to Jesus and her words are drenched in the same disappointment as her sister.
“Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
And here come the most famous tears of all time when Jesus looks on their grief and disappointment and fear and weeps Himself. He goes to His friend’s tomb and commands the stone blocking the entrance removed. And Martha--precious Martha--of the hope beyond the faintest of hopes, lays out the practical realities of the human problem of death to Jesus.
It’s been four days. There’s an odour. There’s decomposition. That’s life--or rather--that’s death. And Jesus answers, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
Our hope is in who Jesus is; in that fact that He is God. That He loves us. That He can do something about our present circumstances. And, that He wants to.
And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (Romans 5:5 NLT)
Jesus didn’t answer their request to come and heal Lazarus. It would have been strange if Mary and Martha had stayed disappointed after Jesus called their brother out of his tomb. If they had focused their attention on the fact that Jesus hadn’t answered their call to come and heal their brother. If they had made cynical statements about how Jesus might heal some sick and blind people but not the ones closest to Him.
Jesus waited to answer until all natural hope was lost; waiting instead for something supernatural to emerge in Martha, evidence of her hope in who Jesus is. “But even now, I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Even when Lazarus’ body is starting to return to dust. Even when there is no reasonable hope, there is hope because Jesus is here. Each and every difficulty and lack faced in life is and opportunity to hope. Not the baseless, worldly hope that crosses its fingers and wishes for everything to work out. Real hope. Hope based on who Jesus is: The Son of God. The Christ. The Resurrection and the Life. The Word made flesh. Our living Hope.
This hope in who Jesus is, is the helmet of salvation. It is a critical component of the whole armour of God by which we are able to withstand the schemes of the devil.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness and as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:12-17)
The helmet of salvation is the part of our defences that protects our minds. Our hope in Christ’s ability and desire to save is what protects our thoughts and emotions. It is our hope in Christ that allows us to raise up our shield of faith in order to extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.
Martha answered Jesus, “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
And even now--right now--You save.