ROMANS 5:1-5

Friends as I stand before you today, I have to admit – this is weird! Your seat here is empty today but you are as present to me and to Christ as if you were sitting just right here. We are the united Body of Christ no matter where we may be. Still, it is a surreal situation – there is so much we don’t know – we don’t know when this will end, we don’t know how this will impact each of us individually, we don’t know the full impact on our healthcare system or on the economy, we don’t know if we will get sick, we don’t know how much we may suffer. Many people are speculating though, aren’t they? There are crazy theories out there about how the coronavirus known as COVID-19 originated and spread, speculation that this group or that caused it, that it is a conspiracy, some think is it a hoax. There is uncertainty – the uncertainty that drives us to stock up on toilet paper and water and groceries. Uncertainty about how and where it is ok to gather. Uncertainty about what places of businesses will close their doors, how food will be managed and so forth. There is in fact a lot we don’t know – and so we speculate. These things can lead us down a path of despair and hopelessness if we allow them to become our sole focus. I am not suggesting for a moment, and let’s be clear about this, I am not suggesting for a moment that we not be appropriately cautious. For we must.

We are not used to suffering. We have been taught that it is our inalienable right to pursue and attain happiness. If suffering strikes, we want it to be solved and we want someone to blame. We want our fair share and maybe even your share, too and we want it now. Rather than exerting patience – we become victims of greed, self-centeredness; we become anxious. At Walgreens the clerk says she is stressed out waiting for the “crazies” to show up. The people who are so frantic to buy toilet paper that they come tear into items as they came off the supply truck, before employees can unload or unpack them. She has been serving a lot of very impatient people lately, she is becoming worn down.

In some ways, we are being worn down, too. For all of us it is an uncertain and even fearful time. Many factors are involved, but three things, are especially wearing: 1) Distractions – goodness knows we are all distracted at this time. Distracted by fears and concerns; distracted by constant news reports. We might even be distracted by what others are doing, or not doing. Distractions cause us to lose our focus and trust in God. 2) Deception – it is easy to be deceived into believing that things will never improve; that if we aren’t fully stockpiled and fully armed we are doomed. Deception leads to fear and fear immobilizes us, it causes panic. Be sure that you are getting good, solid information during this time, and not yielding to rumors. 3) Discouragement – as bad news around us speeds up it is easy to become discouraged. Discouragement grows quickest in isolation where our vivid imaginations take the place of reason, where we feel powerless and overwhelmed by what is happening around us. The uncertainty of it all, the weight of what we don’t know wears us down.

I don’t want to focus this morning on uncertainties, the things we just don’t know  – those are things we have no control over. Instead, let’s talk about what we do know, about what is certain. Let’s also talk about some practical things we can do even now, when it feels like there isn’t much we can do. Let’s turn our backs on distraction, deception, and discouragement and talk about what gives us hope. We all need it. Renowned theologian Lewis Smedes says, “our souls need hope the way our lungs need oxygen.”  Even under normal circumstances we are constantly moving into a future that is unknown to us. “Hope is God’s gift to us in this broken world – it keeps us moving forward.” (Scott Hoezee)

Let’s hear the passage from Romans one more time: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

 It might help for us to be reminded of Paul’s original hearers of these words. This is a group of Christians for whom hope is, no doubt in short supply, they too are living through a time full of challenges and uncertainty, but of a different sort. Professor Scott Hoezee (Calvin Institute for Excellence in Preaching) describes it this way, “They live in the heart of Roman darkness, right under the nose of the Caesar himself. They live in an empire in which that same Caesar is known as Deus et Dominus, God and Lord. This regime is increasingly hostile to this new Christian faith and soon will become a deadly force, putting to death even the apostle writing this letter to the Romans, Paul.” (Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching) It is not a hopeful situation, in many ways the circumstances they lived under could even be called frightening. This is not an audience to which you want to make sunny, cheerful promises that you cannot keep. “God’s beloved in Rome” do not want to be given false hope. They want Paul to offer them real, substantial, reliable hope. And Paul brings it – “he proclaims a hope that cannot die because it emerges from the death of God’s own Son.  It is a hope that transcends suffering and even persecution, it is a hope that surpasses sorrow, trouble, and yes, even the coronavirus. This hope is ours, too.  Paul says, “we are justified by faith” and because of that we also have: Peace with God through Christ. We have free access to Grace. We have hope in sharing the glory of God. We are standing right in the middle of hope, and this hope, this hope, Paul says, does not disappoint.

What is the ultimate ground on which our Christian hope rests, our hope of glory? It is the steadfast love of God – proven to us through Christ. The reason our hope will never let us down is that God will never let us down. His love will never give us up. Of this you can be certain. This love is proven. It is proven on the cross. How incredible that God’s love is poured into us (through Christ on the cross)– we who deserve nothing are given everything. After all that, I do not believe for a minute that God will abandon us. This hope we have in Christ does not disappoint. In this we can boast, in this we can endure, in this we can have courage, in this we can do far more than endure. For at just the right time, even while we were still weak – Christ died for us. This hope does not disappoint.

So, as people of hope, what are some things that we can do right now that reflect and reinforce that hope? Just as distractions, deception, and discouragement can pull us in a negative direction, there are definitely some very practical things that can move us forward in a more hopeful direction.

1) Follow the guidelines being asked of us right now. Social distancing, not gathering in groups, try to stay home, be good citizens. That is how we will get through this together.

2) Practice Gratitude – the simple act of naming the things for which you are grateful can be transformative. Gratitude can life your perspective from your worries and woes to the glory of God. Friends, the sun came up this morning, God’s breath is in your lungs. If you are watching this service you have electricity and are fortunate enough to have wifi and a means of watching. If you have food in your cupboard – be grateful (like the simple book I read during the Childrens message – there are many things for which we can be thankful). Stop focusing on the negative -especially negative people, and instead focus on being positive yourself  (You are the only person you have any real control over anyway.) Let gratitude strengthen you and undergird your hope.

3) Pray! – prayer is the essential of the believer’s life. Now more than ever, we need to be on our knees in prayer. Prayer changes things and it changes us. I challenge you – I know you’re out their binge watching tv and movies – turn your electronics off for even ½ hour each day and use that time to call out to God. Talk to God about your worries, seek guidance and wisdom and then simply sit quietly in God’s presence, listening, refocusing and renewing.

4) Read the Word – look for the truth in God’s word and it will set you free. Over and over, scriptures speaks of God’s faithful presence, of God’s promises, of God’s power and of God’s love. Over and over, in the Old and New Testament, God says, “do not be afraid, for I am with you.” Be reminded that you are never alone. The Psalms have a lot to offer, too. I especially recommend Psalm 46 and 91 – God is our strength, they remind us – read them out loud as a prayer or affirmation.

5) Connect with other Christians and with others who may need to hear from you. We need each other and you don’t have to be face to face with someone to connect. Call on the phone, Skype, Facetime, email, or even write a letter. Do you have grandchildren, nieces or nephews – write a note to them – be a penpal

6) Appreciate creation – Reports tell us that the decrease in human busyness has contributed to improved air quality in congested cities. Be aware that what we do does have an impact on creation. Take time to sit in the sun if you can, go for a walk if you are able, go out and look at the stars, examine some growing thing, breathe fresh air into your lungs, to recognize God’s creative fingerprint on the world and on you.

7) Most of all Trust. God, our God is the one who spoke the universe into being. God whose power is unlimited, is our strength. Give your weakness and fears to God and allow his strength to flow through you.

Friends, I admit to you there is a lot we do not know. We don’t know when this will all end, we don’t know when we will be together again, we don’t know how we will be changed, though I am sure we will be. But we do know that there is one who does, our faithful God. The one who loves us and in whom we can place our hope.  Can we use this time wisely to prepare us to come together again? Can we allow this time to shape us into people who are more grateful? Who appreciate the many small things in our lives that we have taken for granted in the past.

Might we finally come to realize that we need each other more than we knew and that we are connected and rely upon each other much more than we imagined. Might we be more patient with one another? Might we realize that it is up to us to take better care of each other and the world we live in. Might we place our trust in our ever faithful, loving God? Then indeed, we will see how hardship can produce endurance, and endurance character, and character, hope. And that hope does NOT disappoint!