Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Unfading Hope

Unfading Hope
Acts 2:25-28; Ps. 16[1]
  One of the great obstacles to joy in our world today is the prevalence of death. Of course, death has always been around, but I think we see so much more of it. With instant global communications, we see the death and destruction of wars being waged all over the world. We experience the grief of those who have lost loved ones to an unexpected mudslide, or a lost airliner, or a capsized ferry. Even locally, it seems that the first ten minutes of the news is filled with violence and death. It’s enough to drain from even the most stalwart believer the hope that life has meaning and purpose. And that is only what we see reported on the news!
  All of us have or will have our lives interrupted by death. Whether it is a beloved spouse, a sister or brother, or even a treasured child, at one point or another in life, we come face to face with the reality of death. It is a powerful reality. It can take the wind out of our sails, knock us completely off course, and leave us empty of faith, or hope, or joy. For many people in our world, death is the ultimate obstacle to faith. Because of the stark reality of death, they simply cannot muster the faith to believe that there is anything beyond this life to look forward to.
  As difficult a challenge death can pose for us, the Scripture lessons during this Easter season point us to a different “ultimate reality.”  The experience the Apostles had of the risen Lord Jesus Christ completely redefined for them what “ultimate reality” looked like.[2] For some of them, prior to that experience, they may very well have agreed with Ben Franklin’s famous sentiment that “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”[3] But after seeing and hearing and touching and eating with the risen Christ, they could no longer surrender their hearts to death as the ultimate reality. In the presence of the one who had overcome death, they were possessed of a hope that Peter said “cannot decay or spoil or fade away” (1 Pet. 1:4, TEV).
  This is the message of our Scripture lesson from the book of Acts for today. Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, quotes Psalm 16 to make the point that it was God’s intention to raise Jesus from the dead all along. And yet, originally, Psalm 16 was a declaration of hope for anyone who trusted that their life was in God’s hands, and that nothing, not even death, could snatch them from the safety and refuge and joy they had in God’s presence.[4] Although the words of the original Psalm are inspiring, I particularly like the way Peter recites them. He quotes from the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, which translates the original in some interesting ways.
  Both texts express the confidence that because we live our lives in God’s abiding presence, we have the assurance that we will not be “shaken” (Acts 2:25; Ps. 16:8). Both also affirm the faith that those who trust in the Lord will not be forsaken in the grip of death (Acts 2:27; Ps. 16:10), but rather even in death there will be life and joy in the presence of God (Acts 2:28; Ps. 16:11). But the version that Peter quotes makes a couple of interpretations that I find interesting. For one thing, the Psalm in the Hebrew Bible says that God’s abiding presence means that “my body also rests secure” (Ps. 16:9).  But in the Greek translation Peter quotes, it says, “my flesh will live in hope” (Acts 2:26). It seems to me that while the original Psalm affirms confidence in God as a present reality, the Greek translation that Peter quotes points us to a future hope, the hope that death will not be the end for us.[5]
  I think this gives us some insight into Peter’s experience of Easter faith: because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead Peter has a hope that goes beyond death. This hope includes the confidence that he too will experience new life on the other side of the grave. And so Peter can point also to joy, saying “you will make me full of gladness with your presence” (Acts 2:28). I think this was the reason why Peter’s sermon in the book of Acts quotes Psalm 16 in this unique way. For the Apostles, indeed for all believers, the realization that Jesus had truly overcome even the power of death changed their whole outlook on life.[6] From now on faith, not fatalism, would define their lives. From now on a “living hope” (1 Pet 1:3) would determine their attitude about the meaning and purpose of life.[7] Their lives were profoundly changed by their joyful experience of the risen Lord.
  The reason we look to these texts is not for the sake of some history lesson. We too can embrace the faith and hope and joy that those first believers did. It may be more of a challenge for us, because we are among those who “have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn. 20:29). But that doesn’t mean that we are prevented from knowing the hope and the joy that come from experiencing the abiding presence of the living Lord Jesus Christ. This is the good news that we celebrate throughout the Easter season. This good news reinforces for us the faith that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the ultimate hope and joy of God’s life-giving presence.

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/27/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 86: Psalm 16 “teaches that trust is not merely a warm feeling or a passing impulse in a time of trouble; it is a structure of acts and experiences that open one’s consciousness to the LORD as the supreme reality of life.”  Cf. also H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 242: “the life that has come to light in Christ Jesus is the power that now and today embraces human life.”
[3] Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy (13 November 1789); accessed at
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 87: “Trust is confidence in the face of death. ... Death in the thought world of the Psalms is not only the polar opposition of life, the loss of one’s vital existence. It is also the loss of the presence of God and the pleasures of that presence.”
[5] While some would argue that Peter was just using the Psalm as a “prooftext” (cf. Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A commentary on the Book of Acts, 75), I think it is more accurate to say that the Psalm provided him with the language to express his conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead (cf. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 242).
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 88: “Life and joy go together. Life is consummated in joy. Where death is removed as a threat, life is finally free for complete joy in the presence of God.”  It is significant to call attention to the fact, as Mays does, that the Psalmist expressed this trust without a developed “doctrine of resurrection or eternal life.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 29: “New life begins in us through the power of hope: that is an Easter experience.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 28: “Anyone who has grasped what Easter means has found an enduring hope.”