The Future is Behind Us: Enduring Hope
Romans 15:4–13 // Matthew 3:1–12 // Isaiah 11:1–10
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text is from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 15, verse 4, “Whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Our text thus far.
Dear friends in Christ,
The future is behind us. That’s the title of our sermon series, where we’re thinking about and looking at the promises of the past that shape our future, and the image he put out there was that of a rowboat. We move into the future even as we look at God’s promises in the past. We’re remembering what matters and trusting that God will lead us into the future. Last week, we considered past promises, the ancient prophecies that guide us to long for Christmas because Christ in the manger for us will be Christ on the cross for us.
Today, we consider the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we consider John the Baptizer, and we consider Isaiah’s prophecy as we turn to our sermon theme, Enduring Hope. So, what is hope, how do you have hope, and how do you keep hope when you’re at the end of your rope?
At the end of my rope. It’s an American saying from the 1680’s, from mining and railroading where conditions were dangerous and people often were in need of being rescued. A rescue worker would send down their safety rope, they would lean over, as far down as they dared, and the person they were rescuing would tell them if the rope would reach them, how far down the rope they were, or if they had no hope, at the end of their rope.
Because not too far from here is a wife that feels as though she has no more tears to cry. She doesn’t know if she can feel, doesn’t know if she can endure. She feels at the end of her rope.
And not too far from her is an old man who is wondering what reason the Lord possibly has for keeping him around. He knows he’s at the end of his life, and he would rather just be at rest. What’s the reason he is still around; he feels at the end of his rope.
And not too far from him is a young couple whose kids are particularly a handful that day. They have every reason to be hopeful, but they aren’t. They have every reason to be happy, but they’re just tired. They have every reason to have joy this Christmas, but they just feel at the end of their rope.
Three points to our sermon for today: first, that hope is born in dissonance, second that dissonance tells us that we are not quite at the end, and third, that dissonance resolves in harmony.
Hope is born in dissonance. I was up in the choir loft not too many days ago, and I had the opportunity to hear our choir sing. They were practicing for Christmas, as you might expect, and Irene had broken them out into parts. She began with the bass, then added the tenors, then the altos, and I walked in just as she was adding the sopranos and the melody. It sounded beautiful as they sang, heading toward the end of the song, until... she stopped them... on the second last note.
She said, “That doesn’t sound good, and it’s not supposed to.” She turned to the altos; “You have to hold that sour note true right here so that you can have a resolution in the end.”
First, hope is born in dissonance. Isaiah in chapter 11 is prophesying the judgment of the nations that would cut down the tree of Jesse right down to the roots, and that’s exactly what happened. Matthew in chapter 3 is recording John the Baptizer creating dissonance, calling out sin, making people uncomfortable over their sin, because we should be uncomfortable in our sinful ways.
Hope is born first when we realize that things are not right, that things are not as they should be. Yes, that’s something we know in our head, but there are days and times when it finally gets down to our heart. What dissonance do you know? Sometimes that dissonance comes because of our own actions, sometimes, because of the actions of others, and other times still we suffer for no particular reason at all.
Paul said it like that in Romans 5; he says, suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character, hope, and the God of hope tells us that hope does not disappoint, or to say it like he says in Romans 1, hope in the power of the Gospel does not put us to shame.
Hope is born in the dissonance of suffering, in the sour note before the resolution, in the hard times and the hurt that inevitably fall on us in this world.
Second, dissonance tells us that we are not quite at the end. It tells us that there is more to the story than we know at present. Now, notice the language that I’m using: the language of melody, the language of story. When we have a melody, we have a composer. When we have a story, we have a storyteller. And for the Christian, he is one and the same, the Father who loves his children.
Paul in his letter to the Roman Christians was writing to them in the middle of their conflict. Paul writes at the end of his letter, “Live in harmony with one another.” Which begs one to think that there must have been a reason to tell them to live in harmony (I don’t tell my kids to get along if they’re already playing nice), and that’s a truth that runs throughout the whole letter. That’s why his thesis statement way back in Romans 1:16–17 says “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for all who believe, first for the Jews and then for the Gentiles.”
There was dissonance between the Jews and the Gentiles of the Roman congregations; he’s writing into the difference of those who were born into their faith and those who did not know the traditions. They could tell that life wasn’t what it should be.
And, we know this well, it is easy when you are in dissonance to start believing that it’s the end. It’s easy to believe that things will never get better again. It is easy to get lost in that truth that life isn’t what it should be. It would be easy for the hearers of Isaiah 11 to say, “I’m at the end of my rope, and I don’t believe there will ever be a shoot springing forth from the burned stump of Jesse,” when, in fact it took 600 years to get there.
But when we believe in a great composer who calls himself the Father who loves his children, when we believe what we confess in the creed, that there is communion of saints, a resurrection of the body, and a life everlasting, then dissonance tells us that we are not quite at the end. The God who whispered hope by saving his faithful people from Assyrians is the God who shouted hope through John the Baptizer. The God who sent John the Baptizer as a forerunner is the same One who sent Jesus as a little baby born on Christmas Day. The God who resolved the sins of the whole world on the cross is the God who raised Jesus from the dead in harmony with the Scriptures, is the same One who sent him as the first fruits of the dead who will rise on the last day. The dissonance of this world simply serves to remind us that we are not yet at the end.
Third, the song that has dissonance will resolve in harmony.
Notice what Paul doesn’t say through this section. He doesn’t make them all sing the melody. He doesn’t spell out every last rule that they have to follow. He doesn’t tell them to march in lock-step together. Instead, notice what he does.
In the middle of their dissonance, he tells them to remember the harmony that God promises. He says, remember that Jews and Gentiles are going to worship the one true God in joy and peace, and that’s what Deuteronomy says, that’s what Isaiah says, that’s what the Psalmist says, that’s how God will resolve all things at the end of all time. He says, look toward the end, and know that all will be well, all will be resolved, so in the meantime, keep on going.
The kingdom of heaven is like a married couple at the end of their rope in the middle of a time of disharmony, of dissonance. They come to their pastor’s office disheartened and weary. They lay out their burdens, and they wonder if it will ever get better. To which, their pastor asks them to picture this: picture sitting next to your husband, to your wife, holding your first grandchild, picture sitting side-by-side and being able to say, it wasn’t easy every day, but we made it. Is it worth it to endure for now if you get to say that?
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town that sees the disharmony, the dissonance, the suffering of the world outside of them and even inside of them. They cry with the wounded and they can’t figure out how to heal all the hurts, but they remember again and again that God himself will bring harmony, that God himself brings the resolution, that the God of hope will bring joy and peace.
Amen and Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther