Sermon for the 2nd Sunday before Lent: Hope – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 12 February 2023 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.  (Romans Ch 8: v 18 – 25; Matthew Ch 6: v 25 – 34)

“Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans Ch 8: v 24 – 25)

I hope you are all sitting comfortably; for I have begun. That is a vague and generalized hope for the present, and may indeed be wishful thinking on my part, despite the splendid pew cushions that the Abbey Festival so kindly donated a few years ago.

It is the kind of hope which the new atheists jeer at Christians for showing – a baseless optimism, they would say, naïve and without foundation. St Paul would not agree; neither do I. Our hope is based on experience. In a whimsical but telling Epilogue, John Masefield, poet laureate, once wrote:

“I have seen flowers come in stony places

And kind things done by men with ugly faces,

And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,

So I trust, too.”

It can be easy to lose hope as we look at evil stalking the world. But the fact that we respond to it with moral outrage must actually give us hope in the good and steadfast purposes of God. This is what the distinguished mid-20th century parliamentarian, Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, wrote: “You do not get out of …. the fact of evil by rejecting God …. The real problem is not the problem of evil, but the problem of good; not …. of cruelty and selfishness, but …. of kindness and generosity; not …. of ugliness, but …. of beauty. If the world is really the hopeless and meaningless jumble which one has to believe it to be if we reject our value judgments as nothing more than emotional noises, with nothing more in the way of objective truth than a certain biological survival value for the species rather than the individual, evil then presents no difficulty because it does not exist. We must expect to be knocked about a bit in a world which consists only of atoms, molecules and strange particles. But how, then, does it come about that we go through life on assumptions which are perfectly contrary to these facts, that we love our … families, thrill with pleasure at the sight of a little bird discreetly dressed in green and black and white, that we rage at injustice on innocent victims, honour our martyrs, reward our heroes, and even, occasionally and with difficulty, forgive our enemies, and do good to them that persecute us and despitefully use us? No, it is light which is the problem, not darkness. It is seeing, not blindness …. It is love, not callousness. The thing we have to explain in the world is the positive, not the negative.” And he concludes: “It is this which led me to God in the first place. It is this which leads me to think that I know something about His activity in the world through the Christ of history.” (From: The Door Where I went – by Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham)

Hailsham mentions two important reasons why we have hope – indeed must have hope – in God and His promises. The first is our innate response to evil and suffering. Our consciences are a kind of window onto God’s moral purposes; by them we recognize and distinguish good and evil. The second is hinted at: our response to beauty in creation. “Consider the lilies of the field,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount. “They neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Nonetheless, Paul is under no illusion that neither we nor the created world are perfect. Watching harrowing pictures from Turkey and Syria of earthquake devastation, we would agree with him that “the whole creation has been groaning in travail,” waiting to be “set free from its bondage to decay.”

We too wait for what Paul calls “the glorious liberty of the children of God,” seen most fully in what the Prayer Book terms “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”

Amongst the many memorial tablets in Bath Abbey there is a particularly enjoyable one in the south quire aisle. It praises its subject, a respectable resident, asserting that he is now enjoying “a blessed immorality” – perhaps a telling slip of the chisel, certainly a triumph of hope over reason. By contrast, the true Christian hope is founded on reason, on experience, on the truth of the Gospels, and on our own knowledge of God and our relationship with Him.

For what God has planned for us far surpasses our dreams. And for that, with Paul, we wait with patience, being fully hopeful of “the glory that is to be revealed to us.”