Have you ever heard a phrase something like “I had to get far enough down to look up?” This cliché often times finds expression from people who have faced some measure difficulty and yet came away from the situation in more favorable position. Though this cliché contains a kernel of truth, its focus is not on the source of hope in the face of difficulty, but the resulting hope that comes after the circumstance. Do you think you would hear anyone who witnessed the violent rampage of Jared Loughner in Arizona utter this cliché? Could a victim find any sort of consolation in such a statement? Could such a platitude have awakened the killer to the cruelty and senselessness of his crime?
The answer most clearly to all these questions is no. I do think we can track down the source of all hope, but I must warn you, the source of true hope comes as a scourge to most people. It could even be as painful as the circumstances that lead us to look for such hope. Let’s turn to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry recorded in Matthew 4:12-17 to discover the difficult ground that must be tilled for hope to spring forth.
Here Matthew tells us that the beginning of Jesus’ ministry fulfills Isaiah’s hopeful promise of new light for difficult circumstances. As you read the five verses of this short passage, ask yourself the simply question, “Why now?” We might offer the pedantic answer that God willed for Jesus to come forth at this particular time, which is true. Even so that answer does not give us insight, merely a theological conviction. So, on we press. Perhaps we should consider the fact of John’s arrest in verse 4:12. Since John’s ministry according to Malachi 3:1 prepares the way for the Messiah, his departure off the scene likely motivates Jesus to show up publicly, taking up the mantle of his cousin. This sense of purpose may be appealing for a time, but just as soon as one’s usefulness runs out one finds that this kind of hope is fleeting.
More importantly against expectations, 4:13 tells us that Jesus withdraws from Judea, which was John’s ministry base, to Galilee. Jesus does not desire John’s mantle, seemingly attempting to escape from those who arrested John. Could escape be Jesus’ source of hope? Like the drunk going to the bar, or the glutton to the buffet was Jesus retreating to a place where he was most comfortable? A careful reader will respond quickly that since Capernaum was Jesus’ destination he clearly did not want to hide from publicity. Jesus probably removed from Judea so that he would not be taken captive as John had been. Galilee was under a different Roman ruler than Judea and thus Jesus would be safe to operate free from those who had taken John.
Even so Jesus did not return home to Nazareth, the tiny village whose citizens probably had to travel several hours daily to construct the Roman city Sepphoris. No Jesus chose to begin his preaching in a city of fishermen on the major trade route known as the Way of the Sea. In that city Gentiles mixed with Jews and most certainly opposition could arise to his message from a variety of sources. Opposition certainly is a scourge to hope, however can we say that opposition is a source of hope?
In an article published in the January 16 Herald Journal newspaper David Brooks writes about the recent massacre mentioned above. He says that Jared Loughner’s reading list had “a common theme: individuals trying to control their own thoughts and government or some other force trying to take that control away.” Brooks rightly assesses Loughner’s struggle as a secluded man’s unreasonable angst due to the government’s opposition to his freedoms. Even so, Brooks wrongly recommends that better treatment and understanding of mental illness is the answer for those in society who struggle against real or imagined opposition. How can more people forcibly controlling those who already struggle with such authority offer them any hope? Further how can adopting the clinical mental health model help the individual or society surrounding such people have hope when they must accept the inevitable hopeless prognosis of a lifetime of symptom controlling medicines without a cure or the ultimate recourse of institutionalization? Opposition real or imagined does not necessarily lead to hope, but in most cases to more despair.
People facing difficult situations already fall under what Matthew 4:16 calls the “shadow of death”. Whether it is opposition from a tyrannical government, or persecution from critical peers; whether the battle to find purpose or the need to escape from all the stresses; whether it is imagined or whether it is the reality of cold-blooded gunshots ringing out, one thing is certain people can easily feel so hopeless that they would rather die. Matthew quotes this phrase form Isaiah 9:1-2 which relates the struggle God’s people faced when they had turned away from him to follow their own paths. This led to spiritual and emotional darkness amid disastrous circumstance. Those Israelites and followers of John the Baptist could have easily went on a rampage or given up all hope. However, God shines a light into the darkness bright enough to show people that they can return to him.
So what is the source of hope? It is as simple as Jesus’ first message in 4:17 – Repent! His call reminds people that God’s kingdom is coming. That kingdom comes not only as a wonderful promise for the faithful, but also as a terrible day of judgment to those who refuse to bow their knee, surrender to the Lord and repent. Therein lies the scourge of hope. Surrendering authority over my life and admitting my need for a Savior is a bitter pill to swallow. Even so, such medicine is the only way people will find hope since, no matter the circumstance, a repentant life has been entrusted to one who promises that “all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Could repentance and trust in the Lord Jesus make a difference for those facing the horror of a massacre like that in Arizona? Certainly so, since in Him this kind of tragedy is not merely the senseless act of a mentally unstable man, but a horrible reminder of just how wicked every heart is apart from the Savior. To those victims, repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus offers hope that even this suffering is a light and temporary trial compared to extensive suffering of the Savior to redeem and ready us for an eternal home. Even for the gunman, repentant surrender to Christ without coercion is the only hope he has to see his crimes forgiven and be indentured to the only Master who can still his troubled soul. The ability to turn from self to Christ, as much as it scourges our pride, is the true source of all Christian hope.