Dying with Hope
Dwight A. Moody, preaching:
The Saint Louis Arch opened in January of 1967. A few months earlier, my family had moved to that great city, and it was there I finished high school. I recall my first ride up one side of that arch and down the other. They call it the Gateway to the West. It is 630 feet high, the tallest monument in the western hemisphere. It is the same distance from one base to the other: 630 feet. Those dimensions form a parabola. Engineers know it by a more technical name, a catenary. It is the form created by a chain hanging from both ends, reversed.
I recall vividly the day the late William E. Hull came to St. Louis and preached a sermon on the prologue to the gospel to John. He held up a chain like this, described the parabola or catenary, and used its shape to illustrate the gospel message. It was 1971, I was a college student home for the summer working in a Coca Cola bottling plant. I was a member of the International Distillers Union preparing to be a minister!
But etched in my memory are the visuals of Dr. Hull holding aloft both ends of that silver chain, one representing the glory from which our Lord came, the other presenting the glory into which he ascended, and the bottom of this swag, that catenary, that gospel parabola, presenting the great reality we celebrate at Christmas. “And so it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” We call it the Incarnation, a word meaning “in the flesh.”
This silver chain, this gospel catenary, this biblical parabola is also the outline of this three-stanza hymn embedded in this letter to the Philippians. Those early Christians wrote hymns and sang hymns. They, like us, found it easier to remember the story and describe the doctrine if it is situated in a song. Set it to music and we will sing the gospel! They, like us, no doubt had more music memorized than scripture!
Here then is the hymn: equality with God through all eternity, stanza one; identity with us as humans through the incarnation, stanza two; elevation to the place of high honor with a name above all names, stanza three.
Theologians will talk about the pre-existence of Christ, the existence of Jesus, and the post-existence of Jesus Christ. But today, I want to talk about that middle stanza: Jesus humbled him in obedience to God and died: as a criminal, as a servant, as a person. He died abandon by the crowd, betrayed by a disciple, and denied by his friends. He died too young, alone, and in pain.
I hope you do not die that way. I hope I do not die that way. I think of the nine people killed this week in Texas, when a 13-year-old-boy drove a pick-up truck into an on-coming van full of college athletes on a two-lane road west of Lubbock, Texas. I think of the mothers and babies lying dead on the streets in Ukraine. Or the young adults dying every day of drug overdoses. Or those who died in a hospital, stricken by the COVID, leaving life with their families waving from the street. I hope I do not die in these awful ways.
But I hope we all can, like Jesus, die with hope! When our time comes, by disease and disaster, we can enter the valley of the shadow of death strengthened by the same hope that prepared Jesus to enter that city on Palm Sunday, the same hope that enabled Jesus to kneel in the garden on Maundy Thursday, and the same hope that strengthened Jesus to carry his cross to a hill called calvary on Good Friday.
That is the spirit of hope I want when I come to the end of my days; that is the spirit of hope you need when you face the river that separates this life from the next. We want to live with hope, and we want to die with hope.
Jesus had hope. Jesus lived with hope. He had no guarantee about things. When he stood up in his hometown synagogue and read from the Isaiah scroll and declared that it was being fulfilled that day, he had no guarantee that the people would hear him or believe him or follow him; but he had hope.
They ran him out of town and accused him of blasphemy.
When Jesus selected from among his many disciples twelve men to be chief among equals, he had no guarantee that those men would stay with him and learn his message and devote themselves to gospel work; but he had hope.
Most of them did and what they did fulfilled his best hope.
When Jesus stopped under the sycamore tree and looked up at Zacchaeus and said, “Come on down, I want to go to your house for dinner today” he had no guarantee that the wee little man would actually invite him and hear him and turn from his wicked ways; but he had hope.
And by the grace and power of God, salvation came to that house that day!
When Jesus stood at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the one who had been dead for three days, and called out to him, “Lazarus, Lazarus, come out” he had no guarantee of anything; but he had hope!
And to the shock of everyone there, Lazarus the dead man heard the voice of Jesus the living man, and that voice stirred him, awakened him, resuscitated him, and everyone said, “Glory to God!”
When Jesus knelt in the garden of Gethsemane just hours before he was betrayed and prayed that everything he sensed was about to happen might not happen, he had no guarantee that God would hear his prayer and spare him the suffering, he had no guarantee; but he had hope.
But Judas came and betrayed him; and the soldiers came and arrested him; and the authorities heard his case and condemned him; and when he started walking his way to the place of his execution, he had no guarantee of anything: that his dying would be avoided; that his pain would be mild; that his death would be for something. He had no guarantee that he had life beyond the grave; but he had hope.
Jesus hoped in God. Jesus put his trust in God. Jesus our Lord and Savior faced his own death, faced all the mystery that lies beyond, looked into the unknown world that touches our world in a million thin places; Jesus faced all of that, not with any divine guarantees, but with hope.
Jesus had lived all his life with hope; Jesus was entering death with that same hope.
You can live with hope. You can die with hope.
“Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ death and righteousness; we dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
The geographic metaphor is powerful today. Solid ground and sinking sand in this hymn; and in the hymn we sang a few minutes ago, the journey through this land to another land, “Then let our songs abound, let every tear be dry. We are marching through Emmanuel’s land to fairer worlds on high.”
You can march with confidence and sing with joy and live with hope because we are marching with Jesus and singing with Jesus and living with Jesus.
But can I return to the image of the engineer and the mathematician? It is not my natural habitat but here today it offers us a way to look hopefully at the end of this life and the beginning of another life.
Our hope in the future is like a graph, like a series of coordinates mapped out on a universal map.
One by one, these x-y coordinates are brought to our attention. You recall when you heard God’s voice and hurried to the altar and to the baptismal water; put that on the map.
You remember the songs that stirred your heart at as youth and called you to follow Jesus; put that dot on the map of life.
You tell the story of how God picked you up after you had failed; and how God brought into your life just the right person to love you and support you; and how God reached down and protected you in that accident or illness and gave you another decade or two to live; and how God touched your soul and roused you out of bed today and brought you to this sanctuary, to this broadcast, and warmed your heart with love and thanksgiving.
Put all these on the graph. Connect all those dots.
Look around you at the beautiful flowers poking their way out of the cold, cold ground. Observe the simple kindness of people around you and the courage of people we see on the television screen. Take those x coordinates and y coordinates and add them to this map of God’s grace. Connect them with a bold line running all through your life.
Which way is that line headed? Extrapolate it off this graft of life into a map of eternity? Where does it point you? Where does that line lead?
I will tell you where it leads—to the love of God, to the grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the strength and peace and joy that are flowing around you and in your and through you by the holy spirit of the living God.
I will tell you where it leads—to the Jesus of Nazareth who died for you and the God of eternity who raised Jesus from the dead.
I will tell you where it leads—on from this good earth and all its loves and loss, its success and failure, its kindness and courage to that bright day where there is no darkness or disease or death, where we will lay down our sword and shield and study war no more, where the lamb will lay down by the lion; where the river of life flows from the throne of God and on both sides of that river grows the tree of life whose leaves will be for the healing of the nations.
I will tell you where it leads—it leads home.
That is my hope. Is that your hope?
Today I am living by hope and soon I will be dying with hope. That will be alright with me.