Hope for the hopeless

Lewis Smedes was a professor of theology who loved to have a little fun with his students on occasion. He didn’t just do it for the laughs, though, but to help them become better theologians. At the beginning of a unit on hope he asked them, “How many of you want to go to heaven when you die?” And everybody raised their hand.

Then he asked, “How many of you would like to go tomorrow if you could?” And all the hands went down; he was happy. He didn’t have to worry about young people wanting to go to heaven too quickly.

Then he rephrased the question, “How many of you would like to wake up tomorrow in a world where no one was afraid to play on the street at night, where no child ever starved, where nobody ever pointed a gun at another human being, where nobody ever put you down because you were different,  where no mother ever wept over a sick baby? How many of you would like to live in a world that finally worked right?” And all hands went up again. “Then you want to go to heaven tomorrow, because that is what biblical hope is about. God created this world. The good Lord is not that interested in getting us off of it. What God is interested in is getting it to work right.”[1]

God created this world not merely as a testing ground to find souls worthy of living the life eternal way beyond the blue. God’s desire is for life on earth to flourish, and God acts to reclaim all that makes for life. “Because God is a God of life and blessing, God will do redemptive work, should those gifts be endangered,” writes Terence Fretheim. “The objective of God’s work in redemption is to free people to be what they were created to be. It is a deliverance, not from the world, but to true life in the world.”[2]

When we talk about heaven we often get dangerously close to skipping the world, the very world God has made and has given us as a place for true life. Stephen Moseley played a song for us at the end of a talk he gave on a Wednesday night, a few weeks ago. Heaven by Brett Dennen is a simple yet thoughtful song, and you probably won’t hear it on Christian radio.

Beyond the rules of religion, the cloth of conviction
above all the competition, where fact and fiction meet
there’s no color lines, casts, or classes
there’s no foolin’ the masses
whatever faith you practice, whatever you believe

heaven, heaven, what the hell is heaven
is there a home for the homeless
is there hope for the hopeless[3]

I like the song for a number of reasons, but I love how it moves with such ease from the big word HEAVEN to everyday hope in the chorus. True life in the world certainly means homes for the homeless. What about hope for the hopeless?

In Romans 8, Paul writes that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”[4] It’s not just human beings who long to be who we really are, who we are meant to be as creatures made in the image of God; the whole creation is waiting, because its own freedom from bondage is tied to ours. We have a particular calling in creation. Human beings are created in the image of God to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing on the land, in the sea, and in the air.[5] And dominion in God’s creation is all about naming the wonders, and knowing them, and caring for them with the same attention, wisdom, and passion for life as God. But sin distorts our powers of naming, knowing, and caring into destructive modes of living; our dominion becomes oppressive and abusive. We don’t get freedom and power right, and as a consequence we lose our place in the world and live like exiles far from home. But our homelessness impacts all.

Listen to this lament by the prophet Hosea, “There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.[6]

The land mourns, and all who live in it languish, because human beings don’t get freedom and power right. “How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither?” cries Jeremiah.[7] And Isaiah cries, “The heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth.”[8]

We know, says Paul, we know that the whole creation has been groaning until now. But God is a God of life and blessing, and God will do redemptive work, should those gifts be endangered.

Israel knows this because God made a way for them out of bondage to Egypt. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out, and God heard their groaning.[9] And just as God was faithful to God’s people, so God will be faithful to God’s creation. No groan will go unheard. Our freedom from bondage to sin and death and creation’s freedom from bondage to decay go hand in hand. The resurrection of Jesus the Messiah has opened the horizon of our hope to include the redemption of all that God has made. Our hope is not a private one for a seat in heaven, but for the redemption of heaven and earth. In hope we were saved, and we wait with endurance for our hope to be fulfilled.

And where is God in all this? Not watching from a distance nor mysteriously pulling the strings from far away. God is present, and in the Spirit God shares the groaning of creation. In the Spirit God suffers, waits, and works with us.

Paul calls the gift of the Spirit to the church “the first fruits,” which sounds a lot like the beginning of harvest time, doesn’t it? It sounds like the joy after a long time of waiting for the first strawberries, the first corn, the first tomatoes. Paul taps into a beautiful Torah tradition that instructed God’s people to bring the first fruits to the temple. It was an act of gratitude for the gift of the land, for the gifts of sun and rain, and for the blessing of growth. It was an act of joyful recognition that all of life is indeed God’s good gift.[10] Paul taps into that tradition and uses it to speak of the great harvest of redemption for which the life of Jesus was the seed. The gift of the Spirit is the first fruits, the first taste, the first glance, the opening line of the symphony of creation redeemed. We hum along, we sing along, we whisper, we groan, and Paul assures us that it is God’s Spirit in us who kindles a fire of holy restlessness that cannot put up with the world as it is.

First fruits – we know there’s more where that came from, and we lean into that future. The image of God, distorted and fractured through sin, is restored in Jesus the Messiah; and the signs of that restoration become visible in those who trust in God’s life-giving power. Led by the Spirit, they reflect the image of God into the world – and the hills burst into song, the trees clap their hands, and the land smiles.[11]

We have witnessed such moments of redemption and joy when the whole world is at home and we in it; but God’s Spirit is with us particularly when we face the ruin and misery of the unredeemed world, and we find that there are no words left to express the sense of futility and the longing for redemption. Then, says Paul, it is the Spirit of God who utters the prayer the community of Christ wishes to offer, “with sighs too deep for words.” Creation groans, we groan, and the Spirit groans with us. The fire of holy restlessness that cannot put up with the world as it is, makes the unredeemed world’s suffering our own, and in bearing that pain we are being conformed to the image of Christ. In the one Spirit, “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”[12]

God’s work in redemption is to free people to be what they were created to be. It is a deliverance, not from the world, but to true life in the world. God’s work in redemption is the deliverance of the world. It is God’s own Spirit who inspires us to ask, Is there a home for the homeless? Is there hope for the hopeless? And the same Spirit inspires and empowers us to give the answer with our lives, to the glory of God.


May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. [13]


[1] Lewis Smedes, 1993 http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/smedes_3709.htm with some minor edits

[2] Terence Fretheim, The Reclamation of Creation: Redemption and Law in Exodus, Interpretation 45, p. 359; italics in the original

[3] Brett Dennen, Heaven, Hope for the Hopeless, 2008

[4] Romans 8:18-21

[5] Genesis 1:26-28

[6] Hosea 4:1-3

[7] Jeremiah 12:4

[8] Isaiah 24:4-6

[9] Exodus 2:23f.

[10] See Deuteronomy 26:1-15

[11] See Isaiah 55:12

[12] Romans 8:17

[13] Romans 15:13