By Matthew Croucher

Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25 Psalms 78:1-7 1 Thess 4: 13-18 Matthew 25:1-13

1st TESTAMENT READING: Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25  (NIV)

PSALM OF THE DAY: Psalms 78:1-7  (NIV)



What do these first testament perspectives teach us about some of the things the people of God have put their hope in?  I think they show that there’s hope to be had based on knowing a history of God’s saving deeds and there’s hope based on being Chosen, which is to say, being in receipt of the Divine Law.

I certainly identify with hope based on God’s saving deeds.  During my longest period of wandering in a spiritual wilderness, a time I can now see was my ‘forty years in the Sinai desert’, I relied sometimes on the hope that I continued to derive from having witnessed a friend receive what I understood to be a process of divine healing from deep trauma.  In parallel with the Israelites’ experiences of fiery cloudy pillars, manna, and parted seas, I found I could say to myself, I maintain a steadfast hope in God’s Love because I’ve seen this saving deed, this healing, with my own eyes.

Such hope is vulnerable though, isn’t it?  In my own life and with some of the people I work with as a psychiatrist, I note that this kind of hope is vulnerable to being crushed by the weight of the negative experiences we go through, as well as being vulnerable to the forgetting and de-prioritisation that comes with time and distance.  That is, this kind of hope is vulnerable to fear and vulnerable to apathy – both of which the Exodus story makes clear can affect whole peoples, not just individuals.

I also identify with the Psalmist’s view, expressed in the second half of the psalm read to us by Pip, when it pivots away from a hope based on past saving deeds to a hope based on receiving the Law:

“He decreed statutes for Jacob

    and established the law in Israel,

which he commanded our ancestors

    to teach their children,

so the next generation would know them,

    even the children yet to be born,

    and they in turn would tell their children.

Then they would put their trust in God

    and … would keep his commands.”

I can see in my own life that sometimes my hope has been centred on a knowledge of what God’s right way of living was for me.  The First Testament Law, although we may recoil from it now, was actually laid down in the context of a relationship.  It was not a series of demands, or even a contract, as much it was the reciprocal commitment of what historians call the ‘suzerain-vassal relationship’.  It was alive in the sense that the evolving needs of both partners – God and the people – were met.  At best, this is the ‘law engraved on my heart’ of Jeremiah (31:33).  Simply knowing that to act in a certain way is the right thing to do re-arms my strength and reinforces my nerve.

However, I can also remember times, especially when I was younger, when my view of the world tended to black and white, to moralism, and to rigidity.  In that context, this kind of foundation for hope can too easily become the bedrock of just another kind of enslavement and captivity.  Captivity to the chains of “you’re not now nor will you ever be good enough” and enslavement to the harsh and angry taskmaster of Puritanism.  There’s no doubt that the Law can become a dead thing.  Paul understood this as being inevitable in his letter to the Romans, saying (7:7-11):

“Is the law sinful?  Certainly not!  Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.  For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’  But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting.  For apart from the law, sin was dead.  Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.”

I’ve seen this in my own life and can think of some actions I’ve taken in the name of doing the right thing that I am now ashamed of because they brought with them shame and dismay and separation under the cover of righteous anger.

Speaking of law, remember Mark’s story (12:28-31):

“… one of [the Pharisees,] the teachers of the law came and heard Jesus debating with [the Sadducees].  Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”  “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.”

St Paul takes this further in reference to loving our neighbours in Romans (13: 8-10):

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other commands there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  Love does no harm to a neighbour.  Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”

Love is the fulfilment of the Law.  That’s a statement Jesus would surely have resonated with.  It makes me think that one way to guard against hope, which is based on a Godly assurance of how our life should be lived, leading to something sinful is to ask: does this hope give rise to hope?  Does this hope give rise to love?  Or does it deplete hope and love in the situation in which we are moving?  If so, it may be that what was once the Law of God is becoming for us the Law of Death.

So for me, remembering God’s saving acts and committing to live a life that is consistent with the Kingdom of God, as the First Testament readings today encourage us to do; both of these things can and do bring me to hope.  But they are not complete answers because they are vulnerable to becoming weakened, or to being ossified into something rigid and Godless.


2nd TESTAMENT READING: 1 Thess 4: 13-18 (NIV)

GOSPEL READING: Matthew 25:1-13  (NIV)



What do these Second Testament readings tell us about what the people of God might put their trust in?

The Pauline passage in 1 Thessalonians, perhaps the first-written of the books of the Second Testament, was written to new Christians in a context of political and religious oppression.  In those life-or-death circumstances, it invites us to put our hope in the pie in the sky when you die, however you conceive of it.  You don’t have to get bogged down in the specifics of a theology of heaven or of second comings to accept that Paul had a clear hope.

Mother Julian of Norwich expressed the same sentiment as “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.  This is the message at the heart of the resurrection story for most, if not all Christians: that death itself is irrelevant in respect of the hope we have in Christ.  Paul tells the beleaguered Thessalonians that those that are alive, those that are dying, as well as their dead will be “brought by God with Jesus to live with him forever”.  As the beautiful song goes, “Nothing is lost on the breath of God.  Nothing is lost forever.”

I love this.  It brings me great hope.  I do not share what I suppose to be Paul’s theological positions on heaven and a second coming of Christ, and more than that, I don’t have any coherent positions of my own with which to replace them.  This is a great example of how doubt is not the enemy of faith, I think.  But what I find myself certain about is that nothing is lost in God, and that all will be brought together in God, in a way and in a manner that I am quite content to leave to God.  And I am certain that I don’t have to wait for death – I am already accepted into, enfolded up in, and held within this reality.  Death is just another event I will experience within this circle – it is irrelevant to my incorporation, by the grace of God, into that circle.  In this hope, although my death is far more salient to me than whether or I flossed my teeth this morning, the fact of my death seems to me to be of no more relevance to my God-given alignment with Christ than my dental care decisions are.

How did I come upon this hope?  Well, no doubt partly because of my upbringing, because people I love and trust very much held and still hold this view, and because “the Bible tells me so”.  But those are flimsy foundations.  I have come to realise that in many respects, this hope is a gift.  Thought of this way, hope is a noun.  We can have it.  It is a grace given by God.  It is a result of the Spirit of God moving in my life.  It is un-earned, in fact, it is un-deserved.  Un-deservable.  Un-earnable.  Praise be to God.

This is the kind of hope that we can earnestly pray for, and for more of it.  However, for what it’s worth, my hunch is not that this divine Hope gets given or withheld, but that we are enabled to see its presence already within us when we are ready to let go of the scales on our eyes.  Because, after all, “what parent would give their child a stone when asked for bread, or a snake when asked for fish?” as the story puts it in Matthew (7:9)?

Finally, let’s turn our attention to Jesus’ parable this morning.  As they usually do, this parable asks us to consider the topic we are thinking about, in this case hope, in a very different way.  The bridegroom is definitely coming, the story assures us, that’s a given in the narrative.  But to my ears, what follows in the story is that folks should prepare themselves and stay prepared.  We are asked to consider the idea that we should not put our hope in the bridegroom’s return as if, whatever state we are in, whatever we are distracted by, nevertheless everything will be OK.  I wonder if this parable suggests, amongst other things that hope is a verb and not just a noun.

That is, hope will move us to do something, indeed, true hope must necessarily do so, because that is its nature.  This reminds me of the teaching that although we are justified by faith alone, faith without works is dead.  Faith leads to works as sunshine leads to warmth and growth – it is in its nature.  So what does hope lead to?

St Paul has written the famous lines in 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”

If we consider how connected these concepts are for Paul, perhaps we can see that love, a love born in and expressed in relationship; that this love gives rise to faith.  To say “faith” is to say unshakeable trust, the absolute trust that comes from finding that ‘we actually can’ when we thought we could not.  And this faith gives rise to hope, because it is rooted in experience.

And this hope, what might it give rise to in our world where things are far from perfect?  In my experience, hope gives rise to preparedness and to action when needs are apparent, even overwhelming need.  Hope fans the embers of courage when risks are present, even terrible danger.  Hope enables patience when boredom or distraction or fatigue or ennui settle in, patience even in the face of the greatest challenges that comfort brings with it.  And hope gives birth to confidence, where love and faith alone might not enable it to be born.  It leads us to trim the wicks of our lamps and make sure they are filled with oil.

E te whānau, Hope births more Hope.  Let us pray for this gift for each other and encourage its presence in our lives.  Thanks be to God.

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