Hope When All Seems Hopeless

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 4, 2024

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.  (Isaiah 40:30-31)

Today’s reading from Isaiah speaks of worldly rulers and princes, and the hope that some would harbor to overthrow them.  In many ways, the passage reminds me of an article I saw in the print edition of The New York Times just a week ago today.  The piece is entitled, “The Unexpected Campaign of a Putin Opponent,”[1] and it tells the story of Boris B. Nadezhdin.  Nadezhdin is a 60-year old physicist who once served in the Russian Parliament.  Today, he hopes to be on the ballot in the upcoming Russian presidential election on March 15-17.  He is running on an anti-war platform, opposing Vladimir Putin because he sees a different vision for the country he loves. 

Nadezhdin believes that Putin’s war with Ukraine is “driving Russia off a cliff.”  By contrast, were he to be elected President, he would make peace with Ukraine, bring the troops home, release the political prisoners, restore freedom of the press, and repeal Russia’s “idiotic” (his word) anti-gay laws.  Nadezhdin envisions a Russia that is peaceful, free, and able to reengage with Europe.  Is he just a dreamer?  Perhaps.  The Kremlin has a way of rigging elections so that their chosen authoritarian leader wins every time.  Political opponents are either puppets of the ruling party, who take stands on meaningless issues to give the appearance of a genuine contest.  Or, they are barred from the election, jailed, exiled, or worse.  So no one gives Nadezhdin any chance of dethroning Putin. 

Nevertheless, so far the mild-mannered physicist has been able to walk a fine line, and his movement appears to be growing.  In order to be on the ballot, a candidate must secure 100,000 signatures from all over Russia, and this he has done.  Supporters stood in long lines, and braced themselves against subzero temperatures in order to record what they call their “collective No” to Putin.  They are daring to hope for a better future for their country.  Interestingly, Nadezhdin’s name shares a common etymology with the Russian word for hope.  He has become a small beacon of hope to people who had forgotten how to hope. 

What strikes me as noteworthy about Nadezhdin and his supporters is the notion of maintaining hope in a situation that seems hopeless.  Today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah (40:21-31) tells a similar story.  We’ve heard the prophet addressing the people of Israel as they walked through a time of tremendous national and spiritual crisis.  Many long decades ago the Jews had been conquered by the Babylonians, who sacked Jerusalem twice, ripped the people out of their homes, and carried them off into exile.  Those to whom Isaiah spoke in today’s passage were the adult children, possibly the grandchildren, and perhaps even the great-grandchildren of the original exiles.  Many, if not most had never seen Jerusalem, but it wasn’t hard for them to imagine its gilded beauty from the way their elders had constantly talked about it.  Even though Jerusalem was far off and seemingly inaccessible, they yearned for it as they languished year after year in Babylonian internment camps.  They hoped even though all seemed hopeless. 

Even as they hoped, even as they languished, they asked the age-old question: why?  Why does God, whom the prophets tell us is all-loving and all-powerful, allow evil things like decades of exile happen to us?  Why do despots declare that nation should take up arms against nation?  Why do innocent civilians, then and now, lose their homes and lives to the deviant schemes of dictators?  Why do we suffer diseases of body and mind?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  The people lamented that the ways of God were hidden from them. 

Isaiah’s response that we heard in today’s reading might satisfy some.  For others, it might raise more questions than it answers.  Essentially, he told the people that God’s ways were not hidden at all.  In fact, they should be as plain as the earth beneath their feet and the sky above their heads.  God is responsible for all of it: from stretching out the heavens like a curtain, to bringing princes to naught, to taking down every ruler of the earth, to counting every grasshopper.  Our minds simply cannot fathom how the times that try our souls fit into the grand scheme of God’s intentions, so a little humility on our part would be in order.  God’s reply through Isaiah reminds me a bit of God’s reply to Job.  If you recall, Job suffered tremendous loss, and dared cry out to God, “Why?”  Finally, God answered Job out of the whirlwind: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding (Job 38:4). 

Fortunately, Isaiah wasn’t finished.  He wasn’t content to chide the people for misunderstanding God’s ways as they suffered through exile.  No, he meant to encourage them – to hold out for them a vision that would give them hope.  You heard his vision at the end of today’s reading: Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.  Isaiah’s vision is compelling, and not what you would expect.  The people might have thought that if they ever made it back to Jerusalem, the elders among them would enjoy watching the youth romp and play from the comfort of their rocking chairs.  But no, in the kingdom of heaven, youth is not wasted on the young.  Those of any age who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.  It’s a vision of vitality borne not out of physical prowess, but trust and confidence in the Lord.  Simply put, Isaiah wanted the people to keep such a vision of hope before their eyes.  Hope would keep them going. 

We can hear the objections of a cynical world, then and now.  Hope is a lovely thing.  But is it not a cruel trick to dangle the object of our desire ever before our eyes but always out of our reach?  It reminds me of a story I once heard about how an older boy would taunt his younger brother.  The older brother would say, “Tomorrow I am going to give you a wonderful chocolate bar.”  “Really,” said the young boy?  “Just you wait and see,” said his older brother.  “Come in to my room tomorrow.”  The next day the younger brother came bounding into the older boy’s room, but received no chocolate bar.  He protested, “You said that today you’d give me a chocolate bar.”  “No,” said the older brother, “I said tomorrow I will give you a chocolate bar.  Come back tomorrow.”  Are God’s promises like that: always pushed off to tomorrow, never to be realized today? 

Well, obviously I wouldn’t be doing what I do for a living if didn’t think God fulfilled his promises.  The truth is, the people did go home and over time they did rebuild Jerusalem.  Then, some 800 years after Isaiah spoke, Jesus came on the scene.  The Babylonians were long gone and the people were not in exile, but now the Romans occupied the land and ruled the Jews in their own city.  Why?  What was the meaning of it, if any meaning could be found at all?  Jesus had a different take on the problem of evil than the explanation Isaiah put forth.  For Isaiah, much of our mental and spiritual anguish was due to the inability of our finite minds to comprehend the infinite purposes of God.  If we wait for the Lord all will come clear. 

As for Jesus, he certainly believed in the providence of God.  He certainly trusted that God knew what he was doing, and would separate the wheat from the chaff on the last great day.  But Jesus had a more militant streak in which he believed we all live in enemy occupied territory.  Who was the enemy?  Not the Babylonians, and not the Romans.  Taking up arms against them would only lead to more death, destruction, and displaced populations.  So who was the enemy?  It was deeper than any one corrupt king or wicked regime.  Jesus believed that God’s good world had been invaded by the powers of evil which sought to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  What is more, it was time to serve an eviction notice to Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. 

As Jesus traveled the countryside to preach and teach, he immediately began to draw crowds around himself.  Why were they constantly searching for Jesus?  What seems to have been so attractive about him is that when he spoke, he didn’t push off the promises of God until tomorrow.  “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” is what he said in his hometown synagogue.  Then he backed up his words with his works.  In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark (1:29-39), we’ve heard how he healed the sick and cast out demons.  At other times he made the lame to walk, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and even life to the dead.  Here was someone who embodied the hope that Isaiah foretold.  God was truly on the move.  The kingdom was at hand.  “Follow me,” says Jesus.  Today, not tomorrow.  Let’s go.  For me – and I pray, for you – the emblem of hope that impels us onward is Jesus.  His resurrection gives us a vision of humanity restored.  Jesus is the hope of the world, who shines like a beacon in history, revealing a new meaning and a new purpose to whatever difficult road you have to walk. 

Lately I’ve been reading excerpts from a book by someone who knew better than most what it meant to maintain hope when all seemed hopeless.  In 1942, Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist working in Vienna.  As a Jew he and his family were arrested by the Nazis and sent to a series of concentration camps.  For Victor Frankl, the last of these was the death camp, Auschwitz.  In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes the brutal conditions: the forced marches through snow in shoes that gave little protection, the threadbare clothes against the bitter winter wind, the meager rations, the hard labor, the disease, the filth, and the certain reality of punishment or even death for those who fell behind.  Many of Frankl’s fellow prisoners who were younger and physically stronger than he was withered and died.  Frankl survived.  Why? 

The answer is long and complex, and Frankl himself spent a lifetime working out the answer.  But if it could be summed up in a word, the word would be hope.  He came to understand that “human beings have a continuing need to be striving for something yet beyond reach[2]” and that to lose faith in the future was to be doomed.  Thus, Frankl held to a vision of his future and would not lose sight of it.  He envisioned reunion with his pregnant wife and other members of his family.  He imagined returning to his practice in Vienna, helping others through psychiatry and neurology.  It finally came down to a choice between hope and despair.  Since the Nazis had taken everything else from him, he determined that they would not take away his hope.  For him, hope was a call from the future, from God’s future, and the voice he intercepted said love.  The truth is, that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire, he wrote.  The salvation of man is through love and in love. 

Isaiah preached good news to the people in exile to give them hope in their future.  Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross, and rose victorious from the grave to give us hope – hope in a future we call the kingdom of God.  With Jesus leading the way, we press on in hope. 

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. 

[1] Paul Sonne, Alina Lobzina, and Ivan Nechepurenko.  Sunday, January 28, 2024.

[2] Selections from Man’s Search for Meaning, forward by Alonzo McDonald, The Trinity Forum Reading, Winter, 1998, p. 11.