In the movie Matrix: Reloaded, there is a scene between the hero, Neo, and a diabolical computer program named The Architect. In an exchange between the two, The Architect says this about Neo and the human race: “Hope: it is the quintessential human delusion – simultaneously the source of your greatest strength and your greatest weakness.” When we hope, we take the risk to fail. For some, it is a risk and a danger worth pursuing. To others, the risk is too great and it is easier to become shrouded in cynicism and skepticism.
The Gospel of Matthew illustrates this concept perfectly. In the very beginning of the Gospel, we see the example of the realm of cynicism through the eyes of Herod. An ambassador of cynicism, he is terrified and beset with an ontological anxiety. So, he kills every young boy in Bethlehem, in hopes of weeding out one who might oppose him. He lies to the Magi, telling them that they should report to him exactly where the boy is, “so that he might go and worship him.” Cynicism. Skepticism. Suspicion. Conspiracy. Compare that to the way of the Magi themselves. Expectation. Anticipation. Worship. They are ambassadors of hope.
Throughout Matthew, these themes continue to battle back and forth. The way of cynicism is the way of the Pharisees. Control. Legalism. Suspicion. “You have heard it said…” Jesus would preach, summarizing their legalism and rules. “But truthfully, I say to you…” and he would name the way that they might enter into the fullness of God. An ambassador of hope.
In chapter 14, Matthew tells the story of Jesus walking on water. Again, it is a comparison between the realm of cynicism and the realm of hope. The realm of hope is Jesus, who comes to the disciples, walking on the water. Meanwhile, the realm of cynicism is that of the disciples. “Oh no! We’re all going to die!” Peter, the lone disciple who trusts Jesus enough to get out of the boat, is stuck in the middle. His is an internal battle between the realm of hope and the realm of cynicism. Yet, he chooses to take a step into the water. He takes a risk. He opens himself up for failure. He is an ambassador of hope.
Finally, the last chapters of Matthew are a fitting ending to this pattern of hope vs. cynicism. Like a great basketball game, back and forth at the end, the forces of cynicism and the forces of hope take turns moving ahead of the other. Watch how it all ends in the last chapters. In the end of 27, we see the hope of the women and Joseph of Arimathea, who endangers his reputation and his life by taking the body of Jesus and burying it. A story of hope and discipleship. Following that story, we read of the religious authorities and Pilate, who feel the need to post guards and secure the tomb, “in case his disciples…” A story of cynicism and fear. Next is the story of the Resurrection itself, punctuated by the women running away from the tomb to tell their good news. If ever there was a story of hope, it is this one. Next, we read of the plot of the authorities to conceal the Resurrection. Reminiscent of Herod and the Pharisees once more, it is a story of deep anxiety and control and conspiracy. And cynicism. Finally, Jesus climbs the mountain with his disciples and offers his last words. Jesus ends the words of the Gospel with words of hope. The fullness and presence of God is evident in all places and times – “even to the end of the age!” Hope wins!
But it doesn’t always, does it? According to Andy Lester, cynicism is a precursor to crisis. Lester wrote about the power of hope and the danger of hopelessness to our future story. If our core narrative – the story that we tell ourselves about who we are and where we are going – is one of cynicism, then more often than not, that’s what will come to fruition! He writes, “threats to one’s future story make one vulnerable to despair.”
• Herod core narrative suggested that some boy king was out to get him. The outcome was anxiety, which led to despair, which led to violence and death.
• The Pharisees’ core narrative suggested that God was out to get them, unless they did everything perfectly and by the book. One slip up, and they were toast. The outcome was anxiety, which led to despair, which led to graceless perfectionism to themselves and others.
• Pilate’s core narrative was that his reputation and position were at stake, and so he had to protect against this rabble rouser and his band of misfits. The outcome was anxiety, which led to despair, which led to crucifixion and conspiracy.
And in our lives, our core narratives lead us to some pretty dark places. If we believe that we will fail, if we believe that we will be rejected, if we believe that we will lose something or someone who is important to us, it leads us to anxiety, which leads us to despair, which leads us to crisis.
• The new husband who struggles in the first year of his marriage sees no purpose in working on the relationship when things get hard.
• The college graduate believes that they are not smart enough or good enough to get a job when they graduate, so they don’t need to study or work or make the sacrifices necessary to make it happen.
• Or the church member who reads the articles about the challenges of the church. The struggles that face us. The studies by Barna or Pew research over the last decade that say, the challenges are too great: “The Church is dying! Be afraid. Be very afraid. The fullness and presence of God is real, in all times and places, except for here and now. God gave up on the church in this part of the world in 2014. Just decided not to show up. Creator. Christ. Spirit. All of them had somewhere else to be. Emptying pews. Shrinking budgets. Wringing of hands. Why bother?” And so it leads to anxiety, which leads to despair, which leads to apathy or inaction or paralysis or blame.
But the alternative, according to Lester, is hope. Not just a finite hope, in what we can see around us, but what he calls a transfinite hope, in that which is above and beyond what we know or what we see.
• It is the hope that allowed Peter to take the risk to step out of the boat.
• It is the hope that allowed the women to run, worshiping, from the tomb.
• It is the hope that allowed these eleven men to leave that mountainside and begin a movement that changed the world.
And it is more than just the power of positive thinking – trying to trick ourselves to believing that something is going to be okay when it is not. That is not hope, but delusion! Our hope is not necessarily without doubt.
There are two places in the New Testament where this word for “doubt” is found. The first is in Matthew 14, when Peter walks on the water. In the midst of his doubt and the disciples’ doubt, they worship! Worship their miraculous Lord in their midst. And the second in this passage in Matthew 28, where it says the disciples doubt, yet they worship. Matthew chooses to put the concepts of doubt and worship together, recognizing that hope is not pie in the sky or empty-headed foolishness. Instead, we worship in the midst of the doubt. We have this transfinite hope, even though we cannot necessarily name the steps of our finite hope. In other words, we don’t know exactly what the future looks like, but we know that there is a future!
Or, as Lester says, “As Christians we have hope in God and the future that God is in the process of creating. In fact, this transfinite hope gives us the courage to commit ourselves to finite causes such as bringing justice into the world. We can accept that penultimate hopes, such as establishing peace, eradicating poverty, saving the environment, overcoming racism and sexism, and so forth will not be accomplished in our lifetime. Hope gives us the confidence that working toward these finite goals in meaningful because this finite hope is rooted in transfinite hope. Transfinite hope inspires and motivates because it acknowledges a future that lies beyond our finite vision.”
What about here? At First Baptist? Will our story be one of cynicism or hope? Will we be ambassadors of hope, or ambassadors of cynicism, allowing our anxiety and despair to define us?
A story. I told you last week that I went into the woods to work a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t tell you, but you probably could have imagined, that I went into not any old woods, but into the mountains. I went into the mountains to read. About church health and pastoral health and dynamic visions for congregations in this time. I went into the mountains to pray. For you, and for us together. And, most importantly, I went into the mountains to get more sermon illustrations. Of course.
I took a morning off from reading and engaged in a practice that Augustine referred to as “solviture ambulando.” “It is solved by walking.” My plan to solve it – whatever it was – was to walk…up. The side of a mountain. Pikes Peak, to be specific. And my story is one of both cynicism and hope. On the way there, cynicism reigned. You can see Pikes Peak for a long way, driving up. And as I drove, watching it get closer and more ominous, I said to myself words that you might not think your preacher ought to even know, even more say out loud. As it got closer and closer, those words got louder and louder. So by the time I got to the trailhead and took off, I was an ambassador of cynicism.
Now, the climb from the northwest route is straight up. In seven miles, it gains 4,000 feet (approximately the elevation gain from here to Denver) So, even though I had been training to hike a 14er for a couple of months, the air was thinner and my muscles were missing that oxygen. It was exhausting. And as I climbed up and up, mine was definitely a story of cynicism. I can’t do this. I am not ready. Who was I kidding? Through the subalpine, out of the treeline, up what the guidebook called a “gentle slope,” which looked all the while to me like straight up! About that time, I stopped saying those unpreacherly-like words about the mountain and started saying them about the writer of the guidebook.
And then, I did something that changed the whole story. I turned around. By the time I got to the top of the “gentle slope”, I looked around, and what I saw changed by whole perspective. See, from the northwest route, your back is to the mountains. The whole spine of the Rockies. Just about every mountain in Colorado! And all of a sudden, I stopped looking at where I had to go, and looked at how far I had come.
At that point, I was still not done. Not by a long shot. But it changed my story. From one of cynicism to one of hope. And it gave me the strength to change my narrative and accomplish that vision.
First Baptist, there are times when we are tempted to look at our context and become ambassadors of cynicism. Look at all we have to do. Look at the challenges that face us. God is not big enough.
But today, I want you to stop and turn around. Look and where we have come. See what we have accomplished. In 159 years this month. See what God has done. See what God is doing.
• Our partnership with Dezo and the people of Haiti.
• After 20 years of short term fixes and temporary band-aids, we are closer to a dream of a completed building then we have been for decades!
• In the midst of dying churches and wringing hands, we have the denomination calling us and institutions calling us to ask us what are we doing and how can we partner with you!?
How easy it is to wring our hands and claim that the mountain is just too high to climb! For we are not there yet. Not by a long shot! But if we take a moment and look at where have been, and where God is still taking us, then I think that we cannot help but be ambassadors of hope!