Saturday, February 02, 2008

Hope Shifting?

This morning during my devotional time, I read a passage of the New Testament I've read many times, but noticed something I'd not seen before. (That seems to be happening to me a lot lately.)

The passage is in the book of Colossians, a letter written by the first century preacher and evangelist Paul to a group of Christians in Colosse, a town in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. Paul is talking about how, through Jesus Christ, God reconciles people once hostile to God and to God's ways to Himself. He says:
"...[God] has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard..." [Colossians 1:22-23]
God loves sinners, which is a lucky break for me, since I am a sinner. I'd rather do what I want to do than love God or love my neighbor. That proves that I'm a sinner.

When I'm especially out of my mind, I delude myself with the notion, in spite of my inborn tendency toward sin, a tendency I express in my mind and my actions countless times each day, that I can be sinless enough to earn a place at God's table.

But that's not possible. Our sins leave us with an impossible debt we can't pay off. And, as Paul writes elsewhere, "the wages of sin is death."

That's why Jesus went to a cross. Through His death there, He paid off our debt. All who turn from their sin and place their hope in Christ alone are reconciled with God.

That part is clear enough not only from this passage in Colossians, but from countless others as well. Here's the part of the passage in Colossians I never noticed before: "...provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel..."

Show me the things in which you invest your hope and I can tell you what your priorities are. Show me what you place your biggest hope in, and I'll show you who or what your god is. We all have gods, even atheists. It's the object of our greatest desire.

Paul says that there's great spiritual danger in shifting the bases of our hope. "If only I get that job...that wife...that car...that bit of entertainment...that lover...that whatever," we tell ourselves, "then our lives will be fulfilled...then we'll be happy."

As a Christian and a pastor, I've discovered hundreds of ways to shift my ultimate allegiance and hope from Christ, toward seemingly pious and faithful things: "If only we could have 200 in worship...If only I could pastor a big church...If only I could get that book published...If only we could feed a thousand hungry people, then..." But unless our hope is rooted in Jesus Christ alone, unless our allegiance is to Him, we're only play acting in our faith.

It's so easy to shift our hopes to the immediate rewards of this world rather than keeping them on the God we can't see...the God Who came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ and died and rose for sinners like us. I know that it's easy for me to be hope-shifter.

And I must confess that very often, I place my hope where it doesn't belong. Thank God He doesn't judge us for our aberrant behavior. He judges us solely on Who and what we place our hope in when, like the prodigal son in Jesus' famous parable, we come to ourselves.

But there is only one way to fulfill the destinies of our lives, one way to be reconciled with God and so, to experience peace with God and peace with ourselves. And that's to keep our hope fixed on Jesus Christ.

The great thing about God is that even when we allow sin to control our lives and we let our hope shift away from Christ, we can be reconciled anew. That's why one of the key elements of the Christian life is to live, in Martin Luther's phrase, in "daily repentance and renewal." We seek forgiveness. We ask God to give us midcourse corrections. And He graciously makes them happen. He infuses us with new hope!

Where is your hope? If it's in Christ, you have life with God forever. And there's nothing better than that!

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