"Held By Hope" - Romans 8:12-25, Psalm 139: 1 -12

Held By Hope

Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24; Romans 8: 12-25

Imagine with me a parable of two people, two different people, each coming to the end of a long day, each looking back and reflecting on the day’s events.

The first person thinks: “Well, that’s a relief. Whew. I made it through. I did well all day. Kept to myself, stayed away from anything controversial, anything too inflammatory. I avoided upsetting anyone, kept everyone happy. I avoided being hoodwinked or taken in, didn’t waste a cent of money or an ounce on energy on someone or something that didn’t deserve it. I kept myself from feeling beholden to anyone, from owing anyone anything. I managed to steer clear of risks, to keep my eyes down, to avoid any conversation where I might look stupid, where someone might correct me. Whew. I made it through the day. No one could find a fault with me today. Let’s see if I can keep it up tomorrow. Let’s see if I can keep going.”

The second person thinks: “Well, that was a mess. I really stuck my foot in it with that conversation with that woman. Wow, did she get upset. But I guess she had a point. I guess I didn't know exactly what I was talking about...And who knows what that guy from the street corner actually wanted with my money. But we did have a nice chat when I took him to lunch and now, when I see him next, I can call him by name. And yes, I know, I probably looked so stupid rocking out to that song in my car, but who can resist and oh it was worth it! Even if the teenager in the next car over did give me quite a look. Whew. I just about made it through the day. Guess that's a wrap for now. What a day. What a life. Bring on tomorrow.”

I wonder what you hear in this parable. I wonder where you find yourself in these stories. I wonder which person you think is trapped and which person you think is hell. Sometimes being trapped and being free don’t look how we think they will look.

Romans 8 uses strong words like “slavery” and “bondage” to describe a world that needs to be freed, to describe creatures and a Creation that feels trapped by the reality of how things are. We want to know beyond this world. Paul uses visceral images to describe our longing. He starts with the image of death and ends with an image of birth, describing how desperately ready we all are for something more than life as we know it right now.  We are held, bound, trapped, enslaved, caught in eddies of sin and suffering. All the world is groaning with longing and eager expectation.

Yet, as I hear Psalm 139 alongside Romans 8, I’m struck by something. I’m struck by the similar language between both scriptures of being held fast, of how there is no escape. In the psalm, we are promised that there is no where we can flee from God’s presence. We are reminded that God hems us in or borders us, behind and before. We are reminded that “your right hand shall hold me fast.” In this psalm, I find these words comforting, rather than troubling; freeing, rather than confining.

What is the difference? Perhaps our biggest difference between the two scriptures is our starting point---ourselves. How do we see ourselves? What is our expectation of our own individual lives? Simply: who do we think we are?

If we see ourselves as free and self-reliant, not beholden to anyone for anything, somehow able to make it through the day with an excellent grade, based on our own merit, well, then we have quite a nasty shock when we look at the world, when we face things like dying and giving birth, which we cannot control. Paul is describing a world where we discover we are limited, bounded by sin and pain and death.

If we already see ourselves as bounded by these things, small, limited, unable to know ourselves, unable to see in the dark, unable to ascend or descend to all the heights and depths we can imagine, then the psalmist has some words of comfort for us. We are limited and flaw-filled creatures. We are hemmed-in and held. But if we look closely, we discover that our Creator is the one holding us. Our Redeemer is the one with us every step of the way. God watches us and knows us, cares for and redeems us.

These two scriptures describe the experience of being “held fast”, but Paul is speaking to our attempts to control the world as it is; the psalmist is speaking to our attempts to allow God to be as God is. This means we see “being held” as the difference between being held in cold chains of control or being held in a warm embrace of our God.

Who do we think we are?

There is real struggle and pain in the world. We are mean and cruel towards each other. We groan and long for redemption, transformation, of our selves, our families, jobs, politics, economics, schools, lives, world. So much needs to be changed. So much needs to be corrected. So much needs to be turned inside out and upside down and transformed. We feel trapped by how things are. We yearn for what could be.

So, knowing this, what do we do with our yearning, with our need for transformation? Who do we think we are and who do we reveal ourselves to be? Do we start each day with the determination to “keep up appearances”? Do we work hard to hide from others the reality that we too are broken, that we too need to be transformed?

Do we approach each new day with the worry of a straight-A student who might lose some points on an exam if people discovered the truth about his or her real flaws? Or do we give up pretending that we have it all together? Do we give up pretending that we can do everything right and make the grade?

Perhaps, instead, we might approach each new day with the eyes of a child who knows that he or she made a big mistake and now is waiting, eagerly, for the teacher who will stoop down low, look him or her in the eye, and say, “Yes, you really messed up. But I'm still here. I'll walk you through it. Let’s go over this again. Let’s try again.”

My cousin used to teach at Henrico juvenile detention facility. One might think this would be a tough place to teach but she said, surprisingly, it was one of the best places she has ever taught. She actually wrote a novel inspired by her experience. She had years of public school teaching under her belt, but she found that working at the jail was easier. For one thing, she didn’t need to discipline anyone. If anyone acted up, she signaled a guard, and the kid went back to his or her cell. But more significantly, her students, who were in class, wanted to be there. Many of her students had spent years acting tough and trying to prove how street smart they were. They had spent years pretending and posturing and it had now landed them in jail. This might ruin the rest of their lives, their teenage mistakes might follow them on a criminal record of some sort, but these kids had finally lived up to expectations and proven their toughness.

My cousin said, as she taught in the jail, she watched something amazing happen: these young people started to change. They let go. They let go of pretending. They let go of testing their toughness. She watched her students become kids again, enjoying the classes, making jokes with the teacher. In jail, her students became free. They were free from posturing or proving anything. They could simply come to class to be a young person and learn.

In fact, some of them were terrified about what would happen when they’d get released back out in the world. They wanted to stay in the comfortable confines of jail longer, where someone was always watching over them, where the routine was regular, where meals were provided, where they knew their limits. Jail gave them some consolation. In the wide, vast world outside, they could see no such reason for hope.

Socially, we are very different from these kids--but emotionally, psychologically, physically, we are not. We are all in need. We all need someone to watch over us, even when we travel to the farthest limits of the known world. We all need to be changed, transformed, redeemed. This world, these systems, our very lives need to be changed, transformed, redeemed by God.

What if we stopped pretending otherwise? What if we stop trying to keep up appearances? What if we stop acting like we know the answers and never need to be corrected? What if we stop thinking that if only we believe a certain thing or elect a certain person or keep quiet about a certain event, then all our problems will go away, then everything will be just fine and we’ll be free?

Just in case we need more convincing of our limitations, Paul uses the language of adoption, to remind us that we are not all on our own, forging our own path. We are adopted into the family of God, which might look different from the family we would have chosen for ourselves, but whose bonds, in Christ, are even more powerfully forged. We are joined into a family where God is in charge, not us. We are adopted children, not loners. We are heirs, not creators. We are debtors, not investors. We are not people who can skate through our days, pretending to keep our hands clean. We are the ones who are scandalous and sinful and in desperate need of grace.

This can be hard to hear. But it also can be freeing. The psalmist already knows this. Paul is trying to show us this. Words that are scary to someone who wants to be self-sufficient are comforting to someone who no longer believes everything depends on him or her.

And so, we discover we are bounded by the One who knows no bounds; we are hemmed in by the One who gives us reason to hope; we are released from believing that success or power or even just getting through the day is all up to us. We are freed from thinking that we cannot fail.

Because we can fail. We do fail. We have failed and will fail again and again and again. That is good news.

So, now what? How now shall we live?

We live knowing that we will look stupid at some point, but that sometimes we need to dance in our car anyway.  We live knowing that we will need to be corrected and chastised at some point, but needing to enter into tough conversations anyway. We live knowing that we will be hoodwinked at some point, but needing to trust people anyway. We live knowing that we will rock the boat and upset people at some point, but needing to stand up against self-righteousness, injustice, and sin anyway. We live knowing that we will ache, grieve, and ugly cry at some point, but needing anyway to love and cherish the impermanent, beautiful things of this yearning Creation.

We could live hemmed in and held back by the fears and failures of our lives. Or we could live as if we are hemmed in on all sides by love and held at all times by hope. What good news.

This world is groaning; we long for something more, but still, even now, we are held by a hope for things not yet seen. This is the promise of our Creator of Heaven and Earth. This is the promise of our life in Christ. This is the promise which surrounds us and fills us with breath when we close our eyes at night and when we open them in the morning.

No matter what, we are hemmed in by love. We are held by hope.

Thanks be to God.