Just like this past weekend, as elder John talked about, we had a really wonderful opportunity at our New Year Retreat to really reflect on what worship is. What is it to have our spirits meet God’s spirit, and also to really share some of the things that we struggled with. It was a blessing. We had a time of prayer and a time where we can go around and talk with one another and talk about what’s going on in our lives. As we were sharing, I realized that some of these things were really related to the core experiences we go through in life. Things like financial struggles, finding the daily grind of work sapping out joy in life, figuring out how to make a difference in people’s lives within a very structured work environment, dealing with health concerns, struggles in marriage and with family, concerns about children, etc.
In today’s passage, this is written by Saint Paul. It’s a strange passage in a way, because he’s talking about things that are a core part of life’s experience. Being married to a spouse, times of mourning, rejoicing, buying and having possessions, and dealing with things of the world. These experiences are a central part of our human existence. So what does Paul mean when he says that we should live as if these things don’t exist? Surely Paul’s not saying that we should pay no head to such things, is he? But if that’s not what he means, then what’s he saying? What are the implications for what he’s saying? These are questions that we’re going to reflect on today.
The Way We Hoped It Would
One thing I realized about life is that what we hoped something would be like very seldom matches up to the reality of it. For example, I’m not making as much money as I hoped I would. I don’t enjoy my job as much as I hoped I would. My marriage is not what I hoped that it would be or this church is not really what I hoped it would be. Our hopes for something often crashes with the reality of it. The question is: how do we respond when the realities of our lives don’t match up with what we had hoped they would be?
One response is denial. We escape the reality and create a fantasy world for ourselves. This can lead to fanaticism and becoming absorbed in a distorted or false reality. Another response is despair. We resign ourselves to the existing reality. It’s just the way it is. That’s all there is to it. Despair leads to withdrawal and disengagement. I’ve seen this happen in many young people who once had bright smiles on their faces and great dreams. The world has sapped that brightness from a lot of these young people. A third response is hope. We don’t just accept the existing realities as they are, but we have a vision and hope for a different reality. This hope is what we will focus on today.
Hope Rooted in Self and Others
Hope is what keeps us moving forward in spite of existing realities that are at odds with our expectations. Hope is what has driven people throughout history in the face of unfavorable circumstances. But I realized with hope, there is a Christian hope and there’s other kinds of hope. I realized one kind of hope. It’s rooted in the self, it’s rooted in me. It’s my effort and willpower and determination that will change things in my life. I will use my determination to overcome the challenges and difficulties that come my way. We hear this message often. I think it’s great to have personal motivation and there’s definitely a place for it. But what happens when this kind of hope does not lead to the results that we strive for? We can fall into despair or denial, or we can become even more rigid and fixated on this goal. Our hope hardens and becomes an obsession. Then this tunnel vision hope can cause harm to others or lead us to use others just to get what we want.
Another kind of hope is a hope rooted in other people. I still remember in my younger adulthood, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, his first one. I was fascinated by it and I used to watch it on TV every night. My brother knows I’d sit on the couch, just watching CNN and all this stuff. Here was a charismatic figure who electrified the nation’s imagination. His mantra, “Change we can believe in.” The hopes of many people in that nation were placed on this human figure. Once he was in office, the limits of his power were quickly apparent. A unified opposition in Congress and powerful conservative forces bent on curbing his influence, thwarted many of his efforts. Then as we know, the country completely turned directions by electing someone who’s bent on undoing everything that he’s done. So hope in other people has its limits, too.
I realized that these hopes, a hope rooted in me or others, often revolve around circumstances. They are the hope that somehow my circumstances in life will get better. As I reflected, I realized Christian hope is very different. Christian hope is rooted in something beyond human effort and circumstance. It’s a hope based on something independent of circumstance. This hope remains with you whether things are going well or things are going bad. This is the kind of hope I realized that Saint Paul had, and that he wrote about throughout his letters.
As I thought more about his life, this guy lived such a hard life once he answered his calling. Here’s how he described his life in one of his letters, “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; [What was the theme of his life?] in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”
What a difficult life this guy led. But despite all these hardships and difficulties, he remained filled with hope. He wrote much of today’s New Testament. His letters, when we read it, they’re infused with talk about hope and joy in the midst of suffering and his words today inspire countless people across the world to endure and carry on. What makes this kind of hope possible? What enables one to carry on in the midst of life’s difficulties and hardships?
Encounters With God
During our retreat this weekend, we talked a lot about worship and we learned from Reverend Kim that true worship is to encounter the divine. In the Bible, I realized we see this pattern that occurs. One encounters the divine God. Through that encounter, one comes face to face with their naked, underlying self and reality. From that encounter with the naked reality, healing and repentance comes through that encounter. And once that healing and freedom comes, they then sense their calling in life. So Isaiah, a great prophet from the Old Testament, he encountered God and all of his glory. His first response was, “Woe to me! For I am a man of unclean lips.” In other words, once he encountered God, he saw face to face the depths of his own sinfulness and unworthiness. But yet, in that moment he felt God’s forgiveness, healing, and freedom. Only then did he hear God’s calling the form of the question, “Whom shall I send?” To which he responded, “Here I am; send me!”
The woman at the well experienced the same pattern. She had a personal encounter with Jesus who approached her at the well, and gradually through this encounter, her eyes became more and more opened to her reality. The reality that she was living in isolated, socially-marginalized existence. This encounter with Jesus brought healing in her. Once she experienced this encounter and healing, she went back into the town that she had been isolated from to proclaim the good news about meeting Jesus.
Saint Paul, too, had this encounter with God. Before meeting Christ, he thought that he was living a good life that was pleasing to God. He was doing all of the right things. But once he met Christ, his world turned upside down. He realized the depths of his own sinfulness and brokenness, enough to declare in Romans, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Through this encounter, he experienced God’s grace and then felt his call to reach out to the very people he had been persecuting. Paul’s encounter with God opened up a new reality. It was a reality different from his everyday reality. In fact, it was a much bigger reality. Paul saw clearly what this new reality meant. For him, through Christ’s death on the cross, God had succumbed to the powers of this world and suffered a humiliating death. That would have seemed to be the end of it. But the resurrection of Christ for Paul signified God’s ultimate victory over death and anything that would take vitality out of life. Through his personal encounter with Christ, he realized now that he too could die with Christ and rise with Christ in his resurrection.
God’s Ultimate Victory of Hope
In other words, Paul’s encounter with Christ showed him the possibility of a new life as a new creation. This is not a new life with necessarily changed outward circumstances. We’ve seen that his life was still hard. But inside, he was now a completely new person and could see and approach life with a completely new and different perspective. The death and resurrection of Jesus were the visible promise for him that at the end, at the end of it all, God would be victorious over death, sorrow and injustice. Until that end time came, his calling as well as everyone else who’s encountered God, was to strain with every ounce of his energy to prepare the world for such a time. He saw God’s huge and great reality and how he had a small role to play in that.
This is why I think that he could now endure anything that came his way, because God had already shown that victory would be God’s through the death and resurrection of Christ. This is why he could say in today’s passage, “Let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions.” Paul was not an escapist from reality. He wasn’t trying to deny or avoid these realities, he was fully engaged with the specific circumstances of his time. Most of his letters, in fact, are a response to very concrete, specific issues that people in his churches were facing. So-and-so were fighting over this issue and fighting over that. Paul was responding to these very concrete things. Paul was an emotional guy. He got angry. He was joyful. He was fully himself, fully engaged. He even said, “Weep with those who weep, rejoice with those rejoice.” So feel life. He wasn’t saying escape life.
But all of these specific circumstances and issues he dealt with paled in comparison with the greater reality of God’s ultimate victory and hope, as revealed through the death and resurrection of Christ. For him, at the end of the day, all that we go through in life, the good, the bad and the mediocre, will be subsumed by God’s reality. Life in this new reality is a life filled with hope. When we have this hope, we can bear anything that comes our way. For Paul, not only just bearing it, but when we have this hope, the difficult moments in life actually lead to even greater faith in God’s ultimate promise. So Paul writes, “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.” Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope. In other words, our circumstances do not define our reality anymore. We live with a new reality defined by God. And it all begins with an encounter with God.
This encounter happens when we come to worship God for no other reason than to worship God. We learned yesterday that we don’t worship God for our own benefits. Rather, we worship God out of our hearts of thanksgiving and recognition. But as we worship, something happens to us. We learned this yesterday. We begin to experience God’s healing and transformation. We begin to see God’s reality slowly but surely. For me, I can’t really identify one specific or dramatic encounter with God. I think for me, it’s been through a continuous stream of coming to worship, listening to the Word being preached, Bible studies. Through all of this continuous stream that I can, in retrospect, see how much I’ve been changed by God. I think that’s how it is often. We don’t see the spirit at work visibly, but we trust that God is at work in us when we encounter God.
With Hope the Way God Intends It
Now, Paul wrote in today’s passage, “The appointed time has grown short.” This is written in Greek originally. There are two words for time. One is chronos, which is the root word for chronology. Like our physical time on a clock and a calendar. But that’s not the word that Paul used in this passage. He used the other word for time, which is Kairos. Kairos. It’s hard to define exactly, but it means a critical opportunity or moment. A critical opportunity or moment. For Paul, he sensed an urgency to share this encounter of God with others. This great new reality, he couldn’t just contain it himself. It had to be shared and others had to be brought into this new life with the new reality.
My brothers and sisters, living life in fullness with hope the way God intended it, it’s too important to put off or take casually. Our lives are too important to be taken casually. The life that God intended for us is too important to just be consumed by the daily realities of our lives, as important as they are. Yes, we face a lot of difficulties and challenges and that’s why we need community to share with one another and we bear one another’s burdens. But there’s this new reality that we are invited into. This new life with Christ, this greater reality that is bigger than our circumstances.
Paul wrote this when thinking about this new reality. “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” How beautiful that is. That really is the meaning of today’s passage God’s will for us is to encounter the living God. Then to see ourselves as we are, to experience God’s healing hand, and to find an everlasting hope rooted in the God who raised Christ from the dead.
This year, with our theme of healing through worship, let us really strain, seek, strive and pursue with all of our hearts to encounter this God. In the midst of our circumstances in life, I think what Paul is saying is: while that’s important, that’s not the central part of your life, your existence. There’s more about your life than what you’re going through every day. So it’s through this encounter with God that God reveals and opens our eyes to this deeper and greater joy, hope, peace, patience, everything that comes from it. Let us strive and have faith that this everlasting God will give us healing and hope to carry on through our everyday challenges.