Rev. Billy Cerveny: A sermon of hope as coronavirus pandemic continues and churches remain empty

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Sexual addiction was destroying my friend’s life and if he didn’t get help he was going to end up in handcuffs. This was clear to both of us as he sat across the lunch table telling me about the secret world he had built to nurture and hide his addiction.

In the end, this world was an incubator in which his addiction grew malicious and belligerent. It was – as all addictions are – out of control. So was he. After an hour he looked up and said, “I feel so hopeless.”

There are no pastoral silver bullets for moments like this. Indiscriminately slinging Bible verses at someone dying in a pile might make you feel better, but it only deepens their sense of loneliness. All you can do is listen, ask gentle questions and tell the truth.

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I told my friend he needed help and while he had a long, painful road ahead of him, healing was possible. I also told him the desperation he was feeling in this moment was not the product of hopelessness. It was the product of hope.

Hope is a mysterious thing. It is the brass ring of every human heart. We all long for it, but we have a hard time defining it. We know it matters, but we don’t know why.

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All we know is when we have hope, life is good. When we don’t ... well, there is a reason liquor stores are considered an essential service during the coronavirus lockdown.

When we speak of hope on a purely human level, what we are really talking about is the probability of something we want to happen actually happening.

If the probability of a desired outcome is high, hope is in strong supply. If not, hope disappears. In short: Desire + Probability = Hope.

Sounds easy enough. Unfortunately, the variables to the left of the equal sign are fundamentally unstable.

Our desires are fickle. My own have changed dramatically over the years, thank God (otherwise I would be playing keytar professionally in an 80’s band). That’s great when talking about benign things like our taste in music or clothes, but it becomes far more threatening when you get close enough to any human heart to see the war within.

We live in a world that serves up double portions of chaos, unpredictability and loss.

To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, so often we don’t even like the desires we have (Rom 7:15). This was the case with my friend struggling with his addiction. Like Paul, sincerity was not his issue. Sincerity couldn’t change a light bulb much less his heart (or any human heart); it also couldn’t bring his desires to heel.

Probability is equally unstable. We all have plans for how we would like things to turn out: family or financial stability, healthy and happy children, friends, a strong marriage. These are all good things, but we live in a world that serves up double portions of chaos, unpredictability and loss.

Yes, it is good to prepare, but we need to write our plans in pencil. If you don’t believe me, ask a local restaurant owner how she or he prepared for the current economic shutdown.

If this were a poker game, this would be a good time to fold. Alas, we cannot. Hope is not something we are trying to win, it is something we cannot lose. And it demands we play every hand until we have beaten the house.

What is it about hope?

When God made man (meaning women and men), He made us in His image (Gen 1:26). This means a lot of things, but for the purposes of this conversation it means He created us as creatures who – like Him – are hardwired with inescapable longings.

These longings define our sense of purpose and identity. While they express themselves differently in different people, these longings are fundamentally the same in all of us: We were created to be loved and to love just like God (John 13:34). We were created to be valued and to honor the value in others (Ps. 139:14, Phil 2:3). We were created to create (Gen 1:28), to be known by and to know God (Jn 17:3).

These indelible longings intertwine with one another to form a divine cocktail we call hope.

Hope is the unquenchable desire we all carry to see our God-given longings fulfilled. It is the tracks upon which all our lives run. The longing of hope steers us left, right and – in a perfect world – back to God. Where else could hope be satisfied than with the one who built it into us (Ps 34:10)?

Sadly, we now reflexively remove God from our hope equation because our hearts have been broken by sin (Gen 3:8). Here’s the rub: We are still made in His image, still bear the indelible longings of hope, but now shoulder the burden of satisfying it on our own (Gen 3:22).

We live lives in a futile and desperate attempt to be good enough, loved enough, seen enough and complete enough. At best, we become quietly disappointed. At worst, we hide this disappointment beneath addictions, accomplishments and anything else strong enough to anesthetize the pain of unrealized hope.

In the end, the thing we call hopelessness is not an absence of hope at all. On the contrary. It is the product of inescapable hope. It will not shut up and only gets louder when it is hungry.

Paul is speaking into the center of this when he writes: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25).

Jesus calls Himself a savior, not because He expects us to point our own hearts back to Him. If we could do that, we wouldn’t have this problem in the first place.

Jesus calls Himself savior because He has directed His heart toward us. He takes the equation of hope and replaces our mercurial desires with the purity of His desire for us. He takes the thin probability of the world producing good outcomes and replaces it with the assurance of eternal outcomes.

Jesus reconnects our hope with the ultimate object of our hope, Himself. He gives us a foretaste of the life, world and Kingdom for which we were made. Christ in us, the Hope of glory (Col 1:27)

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What does this mean when we experience crushing loss and disappointment? It gives us the space to grieve knowing God is not waiting impatiently for us to just get over it. Jesus sits with us in our frailty and disillusionment (Mt 28:20). He then – in time – invites us to risk hope once again.

Risking hope means agreeing with your longing to be known and loved by stepping into new relationships after tasting the bitterness of betrayal. It means daring to trust He has and will give us everything we need even after suffering incalculable loss.

Risking hope means being willing to sit across the table from a safe person and inviting them into your deepest shame when you have laid your life to waste with addiction. It also means being willing to see the ways He has moved in and around you in your most desperate moments so we will have eyes to see Him move in the moments to come.

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My friend risked hope. He sought help and began the long journey of sobriety. God led him into a community where he could tell his story to men who shared a similar one. He has healed and is healing.

My friend has scars but it took the depths to break his grip and allow hope to do what it does: lead him into an encounter with a God who is good enough, not only to create the longings of his heart, but to meet him in them (Rom 8:38).

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