Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 1 Samuel 1:6-7
In ancient times, being barren was a major affliction. I suppose it probably still is in many parts of the world. But for Hannah (and for all the other women in the Bible whose stories begin with being barren), it meant no security at all for their future. Once their husbands were gone, with no children of their own and with no ability to own property or to earn a living, they would be destitute. Desperation, then, does not begin to describe their plight.
Churches often go through seasons of desperation as well. Maybe you understand what I mean. After years of budget shortfalls and then an economic crisis, there is suddenly a severe conflict and families leaving the church, and then the sudden death of a key leader and then a moral failure on another’s part and so on and so forth…the desperation can pile up pretty quickly. Then there are the anguishing cries to the Lord, “How long will you allow this to continue?!” Month after month of praying can turn into year after year. The landscape of the church turns into a parched, dry, barren land. Heretofore strong, faithful members begin to question whether the Lord has simply lifted his hand from the church…His glory has departed…He has written “Ichabod” across the door.
In such “barren” circumstances, hope for the future is all but waned completely. It becomes impossible to even imagine a future. Only the most faithful few even remain. It can feel awfully destitute…much like Hannah no doubt …
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:3-5
…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect… 1 Peter 3:15
President Snow: Seneca… why do you think we have a winner?
Seneca Crane: [frowns] What do you mean?
President Snow: I mean, why do we have a winner? I mean, if we just wanted to intimidate the districts, why not round up twenty-four of them at random and execute them all at once? Be a lot faster.
[Seneca just stares, confused]
President Snow: Hope.
Seneca Crane: Hope?
President Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.
If you spend much time at all in the digital world, you and your preferences have been studied…by Google, by Facebook, by Twitter, by your browser of choice and all of your searches…and your computer then “gives” you the news it is pretty sure you are interested in hearing. So, if you have a bent towards unicorns and rainbows, you may come away from your computer with a pretty positive perception of the world (and you are, by the way, being set up for some large disappointments in life). By that same token, if your preferences run …
Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect… Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit,serve the Lord.Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Romans 12:2, 9-13
Paul seems clear enough in his letters to the churches…the community of believers (Christ-followers) should look different from the other communities in our world. We should not conform to their ways. Rather, our community should stand out in several ways. The church should stand out in several ways. Here’s a partial list. See how we’re doing…
Our love should be genuine. I read that as real. Not fake. Not conditional in any respect. It is true agape. I do not love you because of what you do or don’t do…nor because of who you are or are not. My love for you does not depend in any way on you or on circumstances surrounding you. I love you for one very simple reason: because Christ lives in me. And as long as that is true, I will keep loving you. Period.
Abhor what is evil…cling to what is good. This is much more than just a moral compass. Morality, in fact, just scratches the surface of this calling. This is about recognizing the work and influence of our one and only spiritual enemy among us and standing against it. And it is about recognizing the work and influence of God’s …
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon,I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:10-11
Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord,none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice,shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.When it comes to understanding the God of the Bible, context is everything…and perspective counts for something as well. Numbers 14:20-23
My brothers and sisters who preach a prosperity gospel (i.e., that God intends for you to have material wealth and to have it right now) claim Jeremiah 29:11 separate and apart from Jeremiah 29:10. In other words, they catch the good news of the promise of hope and a future but they gloss over the bad news that it would come only after a lifetime of exile and hardship (and for many who would die in exile, it would not come in this life at all).
By the same token, my brothers and sisters who favor a dark, judgmental, angry gospel point to Numbers 14 and God’s judgment on the people of Israel who rebelled against Him, but they tend to miss the unbelievable mercy He showed …
I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the LORD;
he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt,
trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,”
declares the LORD. Hosea 11:9-11
“…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Matthew 16:18b
It is a scenario which plays itself out in the sports world over and over again. A frustrated player whose team is hopelessly behind with no chance of winning happens to make a good play or win one small skirmish against his opponent and begins to celebrate wildly. His opponent simply points to the scoreboard and says, “Scoreboard, baby” (or some other word is sometimes used instead of “baby”). The point is simple: knowing the outcome of the game ahead of time does change things a bit.
That is why words such as Hosea’s (above) had to be encouraging to Israel. Though a horrible season was coming, it gave them a sense of what would be on the other side. It is what God does for His people…He gives them hope of what is to come, even in the midst of judgment. He still does. The church today has similar promises to which we can cling. We may go through horrible seasons ourselves (as a church), but we know how the story ends…we know Christ’s church prevails in the end. “The gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” That is an important encouragement.
Often, when I am working with a conflicted congregation, I will encounter leaders in the church who are literally wild-eyed and crazy passionate about “defending” the church, or protecting …