Theologian Jürgen Moltmann states that Christianity is filled with too much religious sentimentality and not enough messianic hope (See Moltmann, Theology of Hope and specifically The Spirit of Life, 119). Christian faith can easily drift into the realm of positive thinking or the content of a good advice column. Although people do need good advice and a positive outlook upon life, these characteristics do not get at the heart of the gospel. This kind of sentimentality can miss the true nature of salvation while glossing over the real problems of violence, sin, and death. Religious sentimentality also provides reasons and rationales that do not sustain us.
“God is with you,” doesn’t sound reliable enough when you are faced with uncertain illness. “Be a good person and do good to others,” doesn’t sound convincing when life is surrounded by violence and abuse. “Let go and let God,” doesn’t really address the unavoidable pain of loss.
According to Hebrews, faith is the substance or reality of what we hope for (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is not just a certainty upon which we rest but is also an assurance of the future upon which we hope. Faith is a future oriented, hope-infused declaration of God’s promised salvation.
Faith is not blind sentimentality. Faith is not settled complacency. Faith is not resolute luxury. Faith is future-oriented hope. Faith rooted in hope seeks out and yearns for what God is yet to do in God’s promised future. Faith looks towards the day when God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ is made complete in the coming of his kingdom on earth.
Unfortunately, our preaching can contribute to understanding faith as a religious reverence and sentimentality. Our desire to offer a hopeful message can easily drift into the realm of positive thinking. Our sermon can be an uplifting story rather than of a promised reality. Our sermons can have good advice but not enough depth to transform our lives. In order to preach a faith that sustains, nurtures, and orients our lives towards the God of Jesus Christ, we must make hope the central characteristic of our proclamation.
According the Paul Scott Wilson, the preaching moment should be considered an event of hope (See The Practice of Preaching). Preaching is the place where God’s promised future is proclaimed in all its fullness. This does not mean that the past and present are ignored and neglected. In fact, hope is based upon the past faithfulness of God as particularly seen within the biblical witness. If God has been faithful through the Old and New Testament, then certainly God is faithful now and will be faithful into the future. The future is therefore a future where God’s faithfulness brings to completion the work of God who has already overcome sin and death.
Biblical preaching therefore does not just recount the past events of God through illustrative story but gleans from them the faithfulness of God that will sustain us into the future. More specifically, God in Jesus Christ shows God’s faithfulness to us, as well as, opens us to a vision of what the future will be. The future kingdom of God is seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – a future that has no more tears, no more sorrow, no more pain, and where death is overcome for good. This is our hope—the present realm of sin and sorrow has no power or place in God’s kingdom. The entire biblical scripture is a witness to this reality—from the Israelites escape from slavery to Jesus’ healing of the blind, to his resurrection from the dead, to his promised return. The powers of bondage, sin, illness, and death have no authority or rule in the present and coming kingdom of God.
Preaching that is an event of hope therefore does not proclaim religious sentimentality but promised faithfulness. Preaching hope opens us to the possibilities of what can be and will be in the fullness of God’s kingdom.
But this hope-filled preaching does not neglect or gloss over the present world. Preaching hope actually plunges us deeper into the present reality with a certainty that the world of violence, pain, suffering and forsakenness has no future. In fact, we cannot preach hope unless we have fully explored the brokenness of the world in all its ugliness. Our preaching must dive deep into the sinful mess of our world so that the light of hope and salvation can fully expose its powerlessness. This is difficult, dangerous, and painful work, but only when we expose our sin to the light of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ will we be able address the troubles in our time. Because of God’s faithfulness in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in this world. Because the future is one of certain hope, we can participate in the transformation of our lives and world here today.
So when creating hope-infused sermons we can ask, “What is God’s faithful action in the biblical text and how is that faithfulness demonstrated today? What sin, violence, death, anxiety, or uncertainty needs to be address in this biblical text and the world? What new reality is opened up to us because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? How will this promised faithfulness of God empower us to change our world today?”
The world is longing for hope—a hope that will inspire us, empower us, and sustain us in this world. Our congregations are hungry for a gospel message that proclaims our current injustices and sorrows have no future. Our preaching must be the central avenue that infuses this world with the hope of God’s promised future.
So preach hope that is rooted in the faithfulness of God. Preach hope that confronts and challenges this present world. Preach hope that inspires us to live into future of God that is to come, and indeed, is already here.
Robert W. Brewer
Campus Chaplain and Assist. Prof. of Religion
Image: photo by Hans Widmer http://www.freeimages.com/photo/cross-1184578