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Episode Summary

Hope can set us up for pain. But the hope that kills you is misplaced hope. The Psalmist takes away our false political hopes and points us toward the proper replacement: Hope in God alone, hope for the world.

Apologies in advance: I’m about to begin this sermon with three words that many of us have been trying to banish from our minds: “Four years ago…”

Four years ago, I was teaching, as I have every fall since, a seminar for first year students in Yale College on education and the good life. A course about what sorts of ideals hold up our educations. About what sorts of people we want to become and what sorts of educations can help us become those people

The text, as it happened, four years ago this coming Wednesday, was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

We were congratulating each other, my colleague Ryan and I, on our good fortune that we should be reading this giant in the history of feminist thought in the West on the morning, we thought, after the United States would have elected its first female president.

Instead, of course, we spent that morning sitting around the seminar table shedding tears, sharing the pain and sorrow of hope disappointed.

There’s an old cliché among English football fans, on the precipice that is the final day of each season: “It’s the hope that kills you.”

It’s the Hope that Kills You

Hope can set us up for pain. At times we can wonder whether it’s worth it.

Today, of all days, on the eve of the 2020 election, many of us are trying not to remember and relive the pain of hope disappointed, steeling ourselves against it—wondering whether we can dare to hope again.

There’s an old cliché among English football fans, on the precipice that is the final day of each season: “It’s the hope that kills you.”

Often, so much is at stake: hoisting the trophy, qualifying for European tournaments, dropping out of the top tiers entirely.

The stakes are high enough. The disappointments brutal enough on their own.

But the real pain, the conventional wisdom says, comes when you start hoping that the outcome you longed for might now be in your grasp.

It’s the hope that kills you.

No doubt, that’s a deeply English sentiment. But it has a powerful philosophical pedigree. Seneca the Younger famously advised: “Cease to hope and you will cease to fear.” And you can imagine a certain appeal to his advice—you might even be persuaded if you had been sitting around that seminar table four years ago, or if you think back to your own place of disappointment that day or some other.

Psalm 33: Misplaced and Ultimate Hopes

In Psalm 33, we have an invitation to a particular sort of hope. While it might at first sound like Seneca or the cynical soccer fan, ultimately the Psalmist’s hope offers a path out of our endless anxiety without requiring us—or even permitting us—to divest our hearts from the world.

Because, first of all, the Psalmist recognizes that the hope that kills you is misplaced hope.

Hope in a great army, in war horses, or great strength. Hope in nuclear weapons, killer drones, or never-before seen accumulations of wealth. All these are false hopes for salvation; by their great might they cannot rescue. Politics itself—the counsel of nations, the plans of the peoples. The Psalmist is skeptical, to say the least, that these are likely to be our ultimate source of deliverance.

Rather, the Psalmist urges us: Wait for the Lord; God is our help and our shield. O Lord, let us hope in You alone. But even this may miss the point.

For there are many who would read Psalm 33—especially verse 12—as proposing a particular sort of pious—even theocratic—political hope:

“Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom God has chosen as God’s heritage.”

Perhaps this, we think, is what it means to hope in the Lord in this political moment. Perhaps if we get this election right, we will be that happy nation. But this too, I take it is a false hope: No matter who wins, the United States will never be that “blessed nation.”

America never was, such that we might be made so again. Nor could we become so by virtue of progressive social policy. That happy people whose God is the Lord is the Jewish people. And we who know ourselves as Christians do well to see ourselves always as guests welcomed into their story—a story that, as the Psalmist reminds us, in naming God as Creator, claims that all political power is fundamentally qualified by God’s power. Political power, then, is penultimate, unworthy of our ultimate hopes, unable to bear their weight.

In the end, the Psalmist has taken away these two false political hopes and pointed us to their replacement in the Lord God. Our hope is in the Lord, not in military or mercantile might. Our hope is in the Lord, not in one or another fictive national identity.

Let us say this day: Our hope is in God alone. Now, that’s just half of it.

The Problem with Detachment

The encouragement that we hope in God alone is not a demand that we practice Stoic detachment from the world.

As tempting as it might be… surrounded by the tear-stained faces of young people disappointed in the apparent futility of their political effort, fearful for the future of their country, suddenly uncertain about their place of belonging in the political community they had thought was their home.

As tempting as it might be… remembering the tears running down my own cheeks, to steel myself against the possibility of that pain by insisting that, in hoping in God alone, we no longer hope in the world and therefore no longer need to fear.

As tempting as it might be… it’s just not true. It’s just not honest. It’s just not what God has asked of us, or offered to us.

Because, as we hope in God, we hope in One who is not aloof from this world and its sorrows. Rather, as we hope in God, we hope in One who created this world and has filled it with God’s love.

The Object of Our Hope

As the Psalmist reminds us: The same God who created the world loves righteousness and justice—and has filled the earth with that love. If we indeed hope in that God, our hope should be for the whole world ultimately become the home of God: each of us and all of us together, living into the divine will that everywhere seeks to turn the hearts of creatures to one another, at home in genuinely belonging to one another and to the God who calls us together.

This should be the object of our hope: not power, not might, not the perfect social program nor some fictive national identity—but the mutual belonging of creatures and their Creator.

So, let us hope in God alone. And, for that very reason, let us hope for the world God so loves.

Let us hope for racial justice.

Let us hope for a home for the foreigner and the exile.

Let us hope for justice and mercy for the orphan and the widow and the vulnerable in our nation.

Let us hope in God alone—for the world God so loves.

Counting the Cost of Hope

And, as we do so, as we dare to invest ourselves in hope for this world God so loves, let us count the cost. The cost of the fear that comes with hope. The cost of the sorrow that attends hope disappointed. Even as we hope for the moments in which we may experience the joy of hope in part fulfilled.

But let us count it all as joy: Joy that we get to share in the emotional life of our neighbors. Joy that we mourn with those who mourn even as we rejoice with those who rejoice. “Rejoicing always,” as Paul says, but not only rejoicing.

This is the joy of hope—the joy of mutual belonging.

Joy found in the sorrow of hope that dared to be invested, even though disappointed for a season—even a very long season.

Joy found in the righteous anger of godly hope spurned.

Joy found in the melancholy of hope that nevertheless hopes.

So as we stand at the precipice of this election, this day, this week, this month, let us place our hope in God alone, but let us also dare to allow God to lead us into God’s hopes for the world God so loves. And let us hope—and mourn and rejoice, and hope—together.

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