When Hope Is Dead, Hope On! – W.E. Sangster (historic sermon 1900-1960)
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” —Rev. 21:1-4
Many people think of hope as a poor, precarious thing, an illusion, a vanity, a disease of the mind. The cynic has said, “He, who lives on hope, will die starving.” Cowly said, “Hope is the most hopeless thing of all.” The soldier is apt to turn bright promises aside with a despondent question, “What hopes?” Schopenhauer, the distinguished German philosopher, looked upon hope as the bait by which nature gets her hook in our nose, and makes it serve her interests, though they may not be our own. That is the common assessment of hope in the world–a poor, vain, deceptive thing.
But hope is not so thought of in the New Testament. Paul makes Faith, Hope, and Love the cardinal virtues of Christendom. “And now abideth faith, hope, love.” He speaks also of “the patience of hope” and of “hope that maketh not ashamed.” All through the New Testament, hope is spoken of in that same high way. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews bursts out into that daring paradox, “A hope both sure and steadfast.”
Now, how did this sharp contrast arise? An illusion: a steadfast reality. A dream: a fact. A disease of the mind: a cardinal virtue. Hope cannot be both. Is the world right, or the New Testament? Is it a bit of folly or is it precious beyond price? What is the solution of the dilemma?
The answer is not difficult. They are talking of different things. There is a higher and a lower hope. There is a genuine quality and a counterfeit. There is a real article and a substitute. There is gold and there is gilt.
Let us look at each of them in turn.
I think you will recognize the lower hope more easily if I employ its usual name. It is commonly called “optimism.” Optimism is much praised. People love to boast that they are optimists, and they speak as though this quality conferred distinction on them.
Sir Thomas Lipton said: “I am the world’s greatest optimist. I am proud of the distinction. There is something buoyant and healthy in being an optimist. It is because of my optimism that I have gone through life sailing. I am always in good humor and good fettle. Doctor Optimism is the finest chap in any city or country. Just try a course of his treatment. It will work wonders, and this doctor charges no fees.
Nor need we deny the value of optimism. It is not full cream, but there is something to be said for skimmed milk. If the choice were pressed upon us, most of us would prefer to live with an optimist than with a pessimist. A friend of mine has set it out in this way: “The pessimist says, ‘It will rain this afternoon.’ The optimist says, ‘There’s a rift in the clouds,’ and he puts on his macintosh and goes out. The pessimist says, ‘I suppose there is no milk in that jug.’ The optimist says, ‘Pass the cream, please.’ The pessimist says, ‘The country is bound to lose this war.’ The optimist says, ‘The outlook is dark, but we shall win through.'”
Of course optimism is better than pessimism. Doctors know that. Professor W. Langdon Brown, of Cambridge University, addressing the medical students of Westminster Hospital some little time ago, sought to remind them that there are precious tonics not easily examined by biochemical analysis, and he concluded his striking address by saying that the best of tonics is hope.
Yes, all this concerns the lower hope, and, when everything has been said in its favor, it is a poor counterfeit of the real thing. It flourishes most where there is no depth of earth, and it soon withers away. It has no necessary connection with religion.
If every doctor knows that optimism is, as Professor W. Langdon Brown has said, a good tonic to the body, every doctor knows also that optimist is a constant concomitant of consumption. The disease may be making its last rapid moves to a tragic end, but normally the patient seems blissfully unaware of it. Keen as the people in hospitals normally and naturally are to get home, their cheerfulness is proverbial. I have been visiting such patients in all parts of the country for years and have been impressed again and again by the hopefulness which they display. But many of them are sick unto death and optimism alone cannot save them.
Nor is it less pathetic when the optimism is displayed by the relatives. “It is all right,” said a cheerful fellow to me one day when I had been visiting his wife who was gravely ill. “She is bound to get better. I am an optimist, you know. I always look on the bright side of things.”
But I buried his wife before the week was out.
Of course we appreciate optimism, and willingly admit its simple service to the community, but it has been immoderately praised, and fully explains the world’s cynicism concerning hope. Boisterous confidence which has no solid foundation looks pitifully ludicrous when crushing disappointment comes, and deepens the contempt in which it is widely held by the disillusioned. Looking at the the bright side of things may seem both bold and brave, but it involves also (as it so often does) a foolish neglect of facts which point the other way, it only adds to the bitterness of ultimate failure. A friend of mine, who used to be in the legal profession, tells me that he often wound up [terminated as a failure or bankruptcy] the business of people who WOULD persist in looking on the bright side of their accounts!
But how different is all this from New Testament hope! It is as different as the gambler’s dice from the proved results of accurate research. We go forward into this dark period in our nation’s life, not inflated with the foolish optimism which seems to give buoyancy to those who do not know Christ, but with a quiet and unquenchable hope drawn from the deep sources of our faith. The language which comes easy to optimists we cannot use. Confident boasting of a swift and not-too-costly victory, and wishful anticipation of speedy revolution in enemy lands, are not the grounds of our hope. It is more deeply based than either of these.
It is based, first, on:
THE INDESTRUCTIBILITY OF TRUTH. Some people would have us believe that truth is a fragile thing, the first casualty in any war. None would deny that we live in an age when scant respect has been paid to it, and propaganda put forward as something “rather better.” Indeed, there have been times when words have almost ceased to have meaning. Aggression has masqueraded as “protection.” Wanton and wicked invasion has been described as though it were a pitying and sacrificial act of succor. Appeasement has been called “weakness,” and a confederation aiming at peace has been regarded as a team of gangsters bent on encirclement.
But it only seems so. Truth is mighty. It does not achieve its victories by any lightning war. The lie wins all early engagements, and sometimes seems to be in the secure possession of the field. The Truth may even be nailed to a cross and taken down, a poor bleeding clod, to be hidden in a sepulchre, sealed with a great stone.
But it rises again! The life-principle in it cannot be killed. Somehow, it partakes of the life of God and, therefore, of God’s eternity. Ultimately, its triumph is sure.
Did not our own Milton [John Milton, the great Puritan poet who wrote the English epic poem, "Paradise Lost”) say: "Though allt he winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the Earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple. Whoever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? For who knows not that Truth is strong, next to the Almighty? She needs no policies or stratagems to make her victorious. Give her but room, and do not bend her when she sleeps”?
In a London hospital, a few years ago, a small quantity of radium was lost. Though its bulk was quite inconsiderable, it was valued at about five thousand dollars, and an immediate and thorough search was made. By some means it was thought possible that it had been swept into a wastepaper basket, and taken to the destructor to be burned. So the dust and clinkers of the refuse plant were sieved and examined.
And there was the radium!–unharmed and unimpaired for all the fiery journey it had made: still at the service of the doctors in their great ministry of healing.
It is not dissimilar with truth. It passes through the fires of fierce distortion, and seems at times to be utterly lost, but the flames cannot permanently harm it, and it returns to its remedial work again.
Albert Schweitzer, like most thoughtful men, dislikes to be asked whether he is an optimist or a pessimist, finding the questin essentially shallow. He admits that only at quite rare moments has he felt really glad to be alive; that he is burdened with a sense of the world’s suffering and believes that, by the renunciation of thinking, mankind is delivering itself into spiritual and material misery.
One things, however, keeps hope alive in him: belief in truth. He says:
"One belief in my childhood I have preserved with the certainty that I can never lose it–belief in truth. I am confident that the spirit generated by truth is stronger than the force of circumstances. . . .Therefore, I do not believe that mankind will have to tread the road to ruin right to the end.”
That, then, is the first ground of our hope–the indestructibility of truth. In all our anxiety these days lest we become nationally self-righteous, none need hesitate to offer the prayer, "God defend the Truth.”
The second grund of our confident hope is this:
GOD IS ON THE THRONE. Many people, most of whom live their normal lives in neglect of God, complain times of national stress that He never seems to do anything. They set out the enormities of our enemies, touch with a light hand (or entirely ignore) our own national sins, and querulously inquire why God doe snot intervene.
The problem is a very old one. It puzzled the psalmist. It perplexed the prophets. It baffled poor Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. When he stood, bloody and ineffectual, in the gleam of the lanterns, and watched them march his betrayed Master away, something came night to bursting in his mighty heart. He knew that it was devilry–every bit of it. But why did He [Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God] suffer it? Surely, the same word that cured the leper, gave sight to the blind, and summoned the dead to life, could blast these evil men for their wickedness. Yet He allowed them to lead Him away, and, of His own will, bowed His meek head to mortal pain. As Peter stumbled into the darkness, that was the question which hammered in his reeling brain: “Why?” “Why?” “Why?”
Let this be plainly said again, however elementary it must seem to those who deeply think on the things of God: He does not work our way. His might finds fitting expression, not in the power to wound, but in the power to woo. His power is not coercion, but constraint. Never does He violate the personality that He has made. With infinite patience, He seeks to win the wayward and the wicked by all the dear inducements of love, and our hard task is this: to have patience with the patience of God.
When we remember our own stubborn willfulness and resistance to His pleadings, and for how long our prayers were compact of just personal petition, and how imperious we seemed to His call; when we remember His own long patience with us through all the years when we were proud and repulsive in sin, it should not be too hard for us to have patience with the patience of God. Let us accept this fact however difficult, or even impossible, we may judge it to be for ourselves. God doe snot work our way. The Cross symbolizes both His power and His wisdom. He meets all the massed hatred of wicked men with bleeding love, and in the hour of their triumph His only reply is a prayer.
But He is still on the throne! He is uncompromising about sin, and only blind ignorance can interpret His restraint as weakness, or indifference to moral worth. The Eternal God will vindicate the unalterable distinctions of right and wrong. The world can only work His way.
Crowns and thrones may perish,
Kingdoms rise and wane.”
Already one nation has been entirely engulfed in the bloody tide of this worldwide war. Others may share the fate–our own even. But justice and righteousness shall not vanish from the earth. Out of the chaos of these times, and by the bitter agony of this doubly afflicted generation, the will of God will ultimately be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
He will never leave us nor forsake us as the scripture promises. The Cross is the pledge of that. In those moments of unmeasurable horror, when we fear that even God’s patience will be exhausted with our wicked race, and all the windows of heaven closed from within against the scenes of earth, let us repair again to Calvary. Here is the ground of unquenchable hope. He will never forsake the world of His incarnation and sacrificial death. God is on the throne. Truth is indestructible. When the shallow hopes of the world and all its false messiahs are all dead–hope on in God!