Libby Twain, the wife of novelist and humorist Mark Twain, was a proper lady who always was horrified at the amount of profanity her husband wove into his lectures and speeches. One day she decided she was going to cure him.
While tying his string bow tie one night before he left for a lecture, she looked him squarely in the eye, and with a sweet smile on her face she began to swear, using every word she had ever heard her husband use. Finally, she ran out of words, then stopped and waited for his response.
Mark Twain looked down into her eyes, and with a broad smile he said, “Libby, you got the words, but you ain’t got the music.”
On this Fourth of July weekend, in this post 9/11 era of tension and anxiety about the future, we need hope.
The Music of Hope
Hope is more than words, though. Yes, it is far more than carefully turned phrases or slogans or self-help pep talks. To be real, hope must live inside us. We don’t possess hope; hope possesses us. Authentic hope captures us and, at the same time, sets us free.
Hope is the music of life. It gives us zest, gusto, and verve. Hope puts a song in our hearts. It not only gets our feet tapping but it gives us the freedom to move out into the “dance of life” with energy and excitement.
Prisoners of Hope
In one of the more obscure books in the Old Testament, God calls His people by a name that describes this captivating, liberating quality of hope. “Return to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope” (Zech. 9:12). This magnificent word-portrait is set against the backdrop of the prediction of the coming of the divine messianic King who would bring salvation.
In anticipation of the coming of the Messiah-King, God’s people were encouraged to sing and shout:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).
Zechariah’s message was addressed to his countrymen who had returned to Jerusalem after years of exile in Babylon. Although they had been prisoners during those years, they were hopeful, because they were sustained by the dream of Jerusalem. Now these “prisoners of hope” were involved in the rebuilding of their Temple and the Holy City. The prophet Zechariah, whose name means “the Lord remembers,” was pointing their way toward their future of hope.
Our founding fathers and foremothers were prisoners of hope, and yet it was a glorious freedom they had because of hope. Their hope was to establish a new nation with God as Sovereign, not some human monarch. Our forefathers and foremothers established a clear separation between sectarianism and state, but never separation of God and state. The words “separation of church and state” do not appear in our Constitution. Their origin is in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists who were fearful that the government might choose a denomination to be the “state” church. Jefferson wrote his letter on January 1, 1802 to reassure the Baptists that this could not happen. At no point did Jefferson argue for a separation of God and state. He clearly sounded warning against neglect of God: “God who gave us life, gave us liberty. Can these liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gifts of God?”
Three days ago we celebrated the birth of our Nation with the Declaration of Independence. We heard again the words of patriotism in many speeches. But did the touch of memory take in our souls? What new resolve did you make about your citizenship? Could you be called a prisoner of hope? Hope for your life, those around you and the unfinished American dream.
I have selected this passage from among the Scriptures listed in the Lectionary for this Sunday because it prompts us to think about our freedom and our hope for our beloved Nation. First let’s talk about true hope, and then about how it can give us courage in these terror-troubled times.
At first, the words “prisoner” and “hope” seem contradictory. And yet they belong together when God sets them to the music of His Son. In a way, hope does make us a prisoner. It is true that Christ came to set us free, but in His freedom we are firmly bonded to Him forever. His bond of hope, though, makes us radiant, vibrant, singing people. We become tireless, persistent in claiming the Lord’s promises in each new day.
It was this idea that prompted George Mattheson, a blind Scots poet and preacher whose life was a song of hope many years ago, to write:
Make me a captive, Lord, And then I shall be free; Force me to render up my sword, And I shall conqueror be. I sink in life’s alarms When by myself I stand; Imprison me within Thine arms, And strong shall be my hand.
My heart is weak and poor Until it master find; It has no spring of action sure— It varies with the wind. It cannot freely move Till Thou has wrought its chain; Enslave it with Thy matchless love, And deathless it shall reign.
My will is not my own Till Thou hast made it Thine; If it would reach a monarch’s throne It must it’s crown resign; It only stands unbent Amid the clashing strife When on Thy bosom it has leant And found in Thee its life.
As the psalmist wrote, “Oh, sing to the Lord a new song. For He has done marvelous things…” (Ps. 98:1). Don’t sing a different song each day, but sing the same song of hope for each new situation in which we can confidently expect God’s presence and power— and freedom!
Prisoner of the Lord
The most free human being who ever lived called himself a “prisoner of the Lord” (Eph. 3:1). Because the Lord imprisoned Paul with the splendor of hope, he could sing in man-made prisons. His hopeful song and the Lord’s intervention at a midnight hour so astounded the Philippian jail keeper that he cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” In response to Paul’s answer he and his whole family became Christians.
There were only a few thousand Christians when Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. By the end of his life, the far reaches of the then-known world had heard the gospel from Paul or from those whose lives he had touched with the transforming power Christ’s hope. Hope dominated the apostle with single-mindedness in both his prayers and messages. He wrote the Christians at Rome about his prayers for them, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). He told them that when he came to them, he would share the secret of that abounding, overflowing hope. “But I know that when I come to you, I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:29). What Paul wanted for his Christian friends in Rome is meant for us as well. We are to be people full of hope—and of “music.”
Hope is the energy of the Christian life. It makes everything else work. Somerset Maugham in Of Human Bondage says, “Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five.” Of course, that’s wide of the mark. But what is on target is that hope is a sixth spiritual sense that fires the five cardinal qualities of the Christian life—faith, love, commitment, vision, and service. As prisoners of hope—people confident of Christ’s indwelling presence and intervention in their needs—we can be irrepressible in our enthusiasm. Our heritage is to live with tiptoe anticipation of what Christ will do for us in the most mundane duties and the most momentous problems of any day. Hope has set us free from berating ourselves over the past or brooding about the future. We are liberated to live.
No Hope, No Freedom
Nikos Kazantzakis, (Ka-zan-zákis)the Greek novelist had his own words placed as an epitaph on his gravestone, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” What a sad way to die and what a horrible way to live. It’s the quality of our hope that determines whether we can be fearless and free. The kind of hope Christ releases in our souls frees us from fear of anything or anyone. We are free from the tyranny of “things”—free to follow His will. This freedom keeps our lives focused on our primary goal of living every day to love and glorify Him. And we are then free to pursue our secondary goals related to our families or our work.
Measure of Maturity
Karl Menninger, the eminent psychiatrist and Christian, once said, “The hopes we develop are the measure of our maturity.” Human perceptions of what hope is usually involve wishful thinking. We all have wishes for ourselves, for other people, and for the future. These wishes are the result of our human desires— that what we have evaluated would be best for us and others, or for some situation. Sometimes we try to wish things into existence, while at the same time we attempt to wish away other things.
A facsimile of authentic hope is yearning. We incorrectly use the word hope to express this longing. Our daily expressions, “Well, I hope so!” or, “Here’s hoping” or, “Where there’s life there’s hope!” are rooted in our humanly induced yearning. It is an intensified brand of wishing. We try to make things happen by yearning them into being.
This yearning sometimes masquerades for prayer. Winston Churchill said, “We build our houses and then our houses build us.” In the same way we draft our castles in the air according to our specifications and then yearn for God to help us build them. Often we are disappointed when He doesn’t build the castles of our dreams on time, or when He has other plans for what is best for us.
Optimism is another bogus substitute for genuine hope. Richard Rodgers’ song from South Pacific sung with such gusto by the late Mary Martin, began, “I’m only a cockeyed optimist.” Lots of what we call optimism is cockeyed. Optimism and hope are confused so often. Creative optimism is a by-product of something more than a happy disposition. There are people who have what seems to be an optimistic personality because of their conditioning and experience. However, unless optimism is based on something more solid, often the optimist sets himself or herself up for big disappointments. I’ve lived through the fires of difficulty with too many ungrounded optimists to suggest that optimism alone lasts for the long pull when the going gets really rough.
“Well,” you say, “if hope isn’t wishing or yearning or surface optimism, what is it?”
The Holy Spirit is the source of lasting hope. One with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit could be called the Spirit of hope. When He seals us and we keep on allowing Him to fill us, hope is engendered in us through His indwelling presence.
It may be difficult for some to think of hope as a manifestation of the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. We are so used to thinking of hope as something we must produce. When we experience uncertain and difficult times, we search within ourselves to try to conjure up hope. Often we place our expectations on what someone can do for us or on some magic reversal of disturbing circumstances. In tough times, I’ve found that asking the Holy Spirit for hope has brought about wonderful results. He actually produces the hope I could not develop on my own. He reminds me of the Father’s faithfulness and leads me back to Calvary and the empty tomb. He gives me fresh confidence to trust the future to my reigning Lord and Savior. It’s then that I can affirm the triple-braided cord and sing with hymn writer James Small:
He drew me with the cords of love And thus He drew me to Him. And ‘round my heart still closely twine Those ties which can’t be severed. For I am His, and He is mine, Forever and forever.
Hope Through the Spirit of Hope
We need a fresh supply of abounding hope to face the abrasive demands of life. I can’t remember a day that there wasn’t some relationship, problem, or challenging opportunity in which I needed hope.
The wishings, yearnings, and self-induced optimism I mentioned earlier just won’t do— nor will placing my expectations on people, or the idea that eventually things work out, or the idea that “time heals everything.” I need a daily tonic of hope to fire my blood, clear my mind, and impel my will. Time alone with the Holy Spirit to talk out my worries and fears, uncertainties and complexities, as well as my need for clarity and vision, has now become an absolute necessity. I need the perspective of the Lord’s plans for me as the context of hope, coupled with a fresh draught of hope from the Holy Spirit Himself. Coming to know the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of hope has revolutionized my life. I used to pray for hope thinking I could run off in my own direction to use it to keep me stabilized in the rough and tumble of a demanding schedule. Now I know that lasting hope is a by-product of consistent communion with the Holy Spirit.
Hope on the Creative Edge
Hope is the special gift of the Lord for the creative edge of our lives in which we realize that if anything of lasting value is to be done, He must do it. Our only task is to discover what He’s doing, where He’s breaking through, and then join and follow Him.
We can be sure that He will lead us into opportunities to serve. Hope is the special gift given to those committed to be servants. Christ came not to be served but to serve. He told His disciples, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master’” (John 15:20). Christ emulated servanthood and called us to nothing less. When we ask and answer the question “As a servant of Christ and of people, in His name, what can I do to serve unselfishly?” we can be assured that supernatural power will be released in us and around us. The assurance of that power gives us the Lord’s hope for His agenda of serving. Luther was right: the Christian is subject to none and yet servant of all.
Return to the Stonghold
How do we rediscover our true freedom as prisoners of hope? Our text gives us the secret. Return to the stronghold. Our stronghold is the Lord Himself. He is our sure defense and deliverer. In Scripture the word “return” is used in conjunction with repentance. Our celebration of the 4th of July is a time for repentance. After the speeches and fireworks are over it will be our repentance that will strengthen our nation in this post 9-11 terrorism world. Allow me to illustrate an experience I had of returning to the stronghold with the members of Congress.
Almost seven months ago to the day, on December 4, 2001 an historic meeting took place in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. Concurrent Resolution 83 had been passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate establishing December 4 as a Day of Reconciliation and calling for a meeting of Members of both Houses to come together in the Rotunda with the Chaplains of the House and Senate for a two hour prayer meeting.
A palpable air of expectancy filled the Rotunda at 5:00 p.m. that afternoon. Throughout the two hours that followed Representatives and Senators shared prayers for the Nation and asked God for His blessing for their leadership. The motto of the meeting was, “When there is no where else to turn, return to the Lord.”