Witnesses to Hope

by Matt Erickson

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
(1 Corinthians 13:13)

This past year has brought wave after wave of discouraging news. Many people I encounter feel overwhelmed by increasing political incoherence, racial injustice, and global chaos, not to mention their own personal challenges. Despair rises up around us like hunger in the stomach of a famine-wracked child. If I could pick one word to encapsulate the current tone of our society it would be hopelessness.

As followers of Jesus we are called to be people of hope, and this calling is even more important in light of the entangling hopelessness of our day. In fact, our witness as Christians at this present hour will remain inadequate if we do not recapture the hope inherent in the gospel.

Of course, the truth is that we also often feel much of that same hopelessness of our time. When we hear the degrading political rhetoric roaring from both sides, we cannot help but feel the hopelessness of our politics.

When we see another African-American man killed by police with no justice served, we again feel the hopelessness of our public justice. When we encounter the radical inability of one person to engage in conversation with another person unlike them, we also feel the hopelessness within many interpersonal relationships.

As Christ-followers we must name that hopelessness within us and others around us, identifying it as real before leaping blithely ahead into talks of hopefulness. Witnesses to hope cannot skip over the hopelessness resident in our world. In fact, hope is robbed of its power if it does not deeply engage with prevalent sources of despair.

Still, as witnesses to hope, we point to more than what is seen. “Faith is,” as the writer to the Hebrews declares, “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1).

As the Apostle Paul points out in his masterful triad of faith, hope, and love in 1 Corinthians, both faith and hope guide us through the present, eventually fading away once they are realized, while love continues eternally, being something we experience both now and in the new heaven and earth. Because we believe in a “God of hope” (Rom. 15:13), we boldly assert that hopelessness is not all there is, as we point toward the radiant light of hope in the valley of despair.

Christian hope, however, is not abstract, but is tangibly real. Because of Jesus Messiah, we have a real hope that rings like a bell in the night of hopelessness. Let me suggest three tangible ways Christian hope speaks to the current cultural spirit of despair, and also how those three ways are linked to our Christian witness.

First, our hope as Christians is bound to the historical Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, the God-man who stepped inside the often dark, historical realities of earth.

When “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message), the resounding announcement from God was that we were not forgotten nor left alone in our troubles. This is, as we know, the message of Christmas summarized so well in that title of Jesus: Immanuel, which means God with us (Matt. 1:23).

Here we have the theological reality of incarnation as a message of hope. Each and every one of us as human beings wrestle with being forgotten, whether we find ourselves lonely at the holidays, grieving the loss of a loved one, or grappling with a problem no one else knows about.

There is nothing quite so hopeful as being remembered in our troubles, and Jesus’ incarnation speaks clearly that God has not only remembered us, but chosen to live with us. Hope rises for humanity even as Jesus releases His glory and descends among us. Christians witness to hope by telling others of this great truth that God is with us.

Not only is our hope linked with Jesus’ incarnation, but, even more deeply, our hope as Christians is tied to the cross of Christ.

Unlike any other religion, Christianity’s portrayal of a crucified Messiah moves into the most profound realities of human hopelessness. It is not a heroic death that Jesus dies, but a despicable death. There, crying out in abandonment by God and humanity, suffering with an intensity of physical pain and social ostracism, Jesus experiences the worst that human life can possibly throw at someone.

The cross shows us that God steps within the darkness of hopelessness and, even as it caves in upon Him, chooses to bring something new and alive out of it. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19). Where despair rings round our fellow citizens because of injustice, brokenness, or chronic sin, the Cross of Jesus Christ says: even this cannot have ultimate power over us.

The cross tells us that God has not forgotten, He is with us and, even more, that God can take the worst of human experience into His hands as something redeemable for good and glory.

As witnesses to hope we can live this out ourselves, letting our lives be a testimony of God’s redemption. At the same time, we can witness to the possibility of such redeeming hope for others, telling them that the worst of human experience is not ultimate. We say this not as unrealistic optimists but as redemptive realists, rooting our hope upon the historical action of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Intimately related to the hope of the incarnation and the crucifixion is a third aspect of Christian hope found in the resurrection and ascension.

Jesus’ resurrection points to His kingly power and His ascension to the glory that He receives from God. This “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3) reminds us that Jesus received the name above every name so that “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).

This eschatological hope of King Jesus confronts the hopelessness heaped upon us by the belligerent kingdoms of earth. King Jesus is enthroned and glorified, and no one can trump His authority. Yes, every king – every prime minister and president – and every kingdom – every political order and nation – is dethroned by Jesus and will bend the knee before His glory. No one can resist.

The zenith of their power – whether Babylon, Rome or any other nation – is now in its sunset, eclipsed by the Sun of Righteousness and the kingdom of God. We bear witness to this reality, breathing hope into the lungs of those whose breath has been stolen away by the claims of political orders. As witnesses to hope, we say to those around us: breathe the free air of a new kingdom with a King whose throne is undergirded by righteousness and justice (Ps. 97:2).

So, even as we share our faith with our neighbors and family members, may we remember that the gospel message is a message of good news of great joy for all people, infused with the harmonies of hope unlike anything we have ever heard.

May we become witnesses to hope even as we live among the dark desolations of our struggling world. May we not lightly brush aside hopelessness, but may we speak with tender strength of the God of hope who lived, died, rose again and ascended that we might truly live with hope now.  May we be witnesses of hope who live with hope as servants of the God of hope.

Matt Erickson (@mathyouerickson) is the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church (eastbrook.org), a multi-ethnic church in urban Milwaukee. Matt has served both in local church ministry and with international development organizations. Matt co-authored the Milwaukee Declaration (milwaukeedeclaration.com) and writes regularly at his own blog (mwerickson.com). He is married to Kelly and they have three boys.