Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Boasting of Hope

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Romans 5:1-11; Psalm 46:1-11

            Whether or not Mohammed Ali was the greatest boxer of all

time, he was certainly the champion at bragging. In 1964 he went into his first title fight with Sonny Liston as a 7-1 underdog. In a poll of sports writers before the fight, 43 out of 46 picked Sonny Liston to win. Nevertheless in the days leading up to the fight Ali unleashed a torrent of trash talk, promising to pummel Sonny Liston. He even used little rhymes: “By the end of round nine, Sonny Liston will be mine.”

            The one word you never heard from Mohammed Ali the boxer was

the word hope. He never said, “I hope I beat Sonny Liston. I hope I beat Joe Frazier. I hope I beat George Foreman.” Instead he confidently predicted what round it would happen.

            The word “hope” doesn’t usually go with the word “boasting.”

You don’t boast about your hopes. But Paul does. Romans 5:2: “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

            This is particularly strange because earlier in Romans Paul

discourages boasting. In chapter 2, verse 23 he says to his Jewish readers, “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” He is trying to undermine their boasting. Then in chapter 3 he does the same to the Gentiles. In verse 9 he says, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” And then in the scripture I read last week, after describing salvation by grace through faith, Paul says, “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith.” Paul insists that salvation by grace excludes boasting, but then two chapters later he says we can boast.

            If you were counting, Paul uses the word “boast” three times

in this scripture reading. The first, which I have already mentioned, is in verse 2: “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” I will say more about that in a moment.

            His second use of the word is in verse 3: “We also boast in

our sufferings.” I think this can be misunderstood. Years ago in Spokane I visited an elderly lady who I would say boasted of her suffering. It was all she talked about. I would call her on the phone and she would say, “I don’t have time to talk about all my problems,” and then she spent the next half hour on the phone talking about all her problems. In fairness, she did have some significant issues. She was a widow with no family. She was not in good health. She had a hard time managing things around her house, and she did not have enough money to hire help. After some visits from Elder Services, she qualified to have someone come once a week to do chores, but she spent more time telling the chore worker about her problems than she did getting help for them.

            That is not what the apostle Paul has in mind here.  Paul is

not talking about some kind of martyr complex. Nor is he dignifying suffering as a form of character builder. I know it sounds that way. In verses 3-4 Paul says, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” It sounds like he sees suffering as a form of character building. But that is not what he means. The Greek word translated “character” also means evidence or proof. It is the same word Paul uses in II Corinthians 13:3 when he says, “You desire proof that Christ is speaking in me.” The idea is not that suffering builds character. The idea is that endurance through suffering gives us evidence or proof that God is still at work in our lives, and that gives us hope. When you look at it this way, the connections make more sense. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance through suffering produces evidence or proof that God is at work in our lives, and that gives us hope.

  So we boast of suffering, not because suffering is good, not because

suffering builds character, but because suffering does not have the last word. That’s what Paul means in verse 2 when he says, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” We boast because our lives and future are in the hands of a loving God, a God who showed how much he loved us by giving his own Son to save us. Hence the third use of the word “boast” in verse 11: “But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

            The Presbyterian General Assembly going on in Portland this

week reminded me of a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church named Ben Weir. Ben Weir was a Presbyterian a missionary in Lebanon who was kidnapped and held for ransom by one of the factions fighting a civil war in Lebanon back in 1984. He wrote a book about the experience called Hostage Bound, Hostage Free, and here is how he described the moment of his kidnapping. He and his wife Carol were walking toward the Presbyterian seminary in Beirut where they were teachers.

We had gone only a short way when a car pulled up from behind us and stopped. Two men got out and said something. The words were not clear, but I assumed they were in English. “What do you want I asked one of the men? I hardly understood his response. “I want you!” With that he grabbed my arm and started pulling me toward the car. Carol and I realized at the same moment that this was a kidnap attempt. She began screaming and I yelled for help.

I tried to resist, but the man was much younger and stronger than I was. He twisted my necktie and pulled me toward the car. I braced my hands on both sides of the open back door, but he gave me a tremendous shove from behind and forced me into the back seat. A man with a black beard jumped into the front seat and pointed an automatic pistol at my head while the driver put the car in motion. The man who had seized me forced me down on the floor of the car and pulled a sack over me, keeping his hand on my back. By now the car was speeding along. I realized I was at the mercy of my assailants, helpless, unable to escape.

Frightening thoughts raced through my mind. What was going to happen to me? Would I be killed? Would I be held for ransom? Tortured? And why me? Did they want someone else and take me by mistake?

I felt completely powerless, like so many hundreds of Lebanese who have themselves been captured and taken away. I had read about such kidnappings frequently and had talked to distraught relatives of the kidnap victims many times. Well, I said to myself, now it’s happening to me. It’s not a story in the paper, it’s for real. This is a new experience. Now I’ll know what it’s like to be kidnapped.

Despite this mental pep talk, I couldn’t help worrying: Here I am, a gun at my head, unable to do anything for myself. I can’t get free. I can’t even call out for help. I don’t know what lies ahead. I may be hurt, even killed.

Yet I was guided by a deep assurance. I felt I was supported, cradled, in the dependable arms of God. He knew where I was. He knew the men who had me in their control. He was aware of where the car was going and of what lay ahead. I could count on God. So in spite of my anxiety and fear, I began to relax (p. 13).

            That’s what the Bible means by boasting of hope.  It is not

arrogance. It is not a boxer promising to win in the ninth round. Nor is it ignorant naïvete. Ben Weir was well aware of the kind of suffering endured by kidnap victims in Lebanon. He ended up being a hostage for 495 days before he was released. I met Ben Weir the year after his release when he was moderator of the General Assembly. He was a humble unassuming seminary professor nearing retirement. He was the antithesis of Mohammed Ali the boxer. And yet he had an extraordinary peace about him. He was a living embodiment of Romans 5: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

            That is the essence of hopeful boasting.  It is not

arrogance; it is not character building. It is an assurance born of faith. It is a confidence rooted not in our own power to manage things but in our belief that God manages things, and that nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7