August 2, 2020

                                                                              Rev. John Watts

                                                                              Nampa First UMC


Romans 15:1-7,13

I don’t know if the hymn we just heard is familiar to you.  “Sometimes a Light Surprises the Christian When He Sings.”  It’s an obscure hymn.  It was in our 1964 hymnal but it didn’t make the cut when the 1989 hymnal came out.  I don’t remember there being any great uproar that it was left out.  But I grew up on that hymn. Somehow it’s been stuck in my head for several weeks now, so I thought maybe there might be something in that old hymn worth sharing with you today.

It was written by William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”), a gifted poet who lived in England in the 1700’s.  Much of Cowper’s life was lived in darkness.  His mother died in childbirth when he was six.  That child survived but none of his other five siblings lived to adulthood. So that’s six immediate family members who died while he was growing up.  Then as an adult, his father stood in the way of his marriage to the woman he loved.  No wonder he suffered from severe depression.  So severe that three times he attempted suicide.

There was a lot of darkness in his life, and yet he wrote this beautiful hymn about light.  “Sometimes a light surprises.”  That light surprised him.  He wasn’t expecting it.  But he discovered that there is more to life than darkness and despair.  There is hope.  He wrote this hymn, one of the greatest hymns ever written about hope.

We often have a memory verse that goes along with the sermon. This week especially I encourage you to make the effort to commit this one to memory.  It’s a wonderful verse about hope.  It can change your life.

             May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).

Last time I preached, I preached about optimism.  So what is the difference between optimism and hope?  It’s not that one is good and the other is bad.  Both are good.  But they are not the same.  If you have optimism, you are expecting things to go your way.  But if you have hope – Christian hope – you are trusting God whether things go your way or not.

Here is an example.  You might be optimistic about a vaccine for COVID-19.  You might be optimistic about life returning to normal soon.  But what if it doesn’t turn out that way?  What if the pessimists are right and we have to wear these masks and live under these restrictions for a long time?  What if there is no football season? (Heaven forbid!)  Our optimism may have failed us, but not our hope in God.  Here’s the way William Cowper says it in that hymn:  “Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may; it can bring with it nothing but he will bear us through.”

This is not the first time there has been a pandemic.  In fact, here is some trivia.  Do you know where we get our custom of saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes?  It goes clear back to AD 590 and one of the many plagues that hit the ancient world.  A sneeze was thought to be an early indication that you were getting sick, so Pope Gregory the Great commanded Christians to say “God bless you” each time someone sneezed.

More trivia.  Did you know that a sneeze propels a spray of droplets that can reach 27 feet and travel at 100 miles per hour?  No wonder we’re supposed to wear masks.

We’re more aware of our sneezes and coughs and handshakes and hugs these days.  Even our singing.  Even breathing the same air.  Because we know we can infect each other.  We are dealing with a virus that is easily transmitted.  But here’s the thing.  We catch more from each other than a virus.  Our emotions also are contagious.

There was a study in which two people sat next to each other without saying a word.  One of the two was in a great mood.  The other was severely depressed.  After two hours of just sitting next to each other, the one who was feeling so great reported no longer feeling so great.  He was now depressed, and he had no idea why.

It can work the other way too.  Happy people can make unhappy people less unhappy.  Calm people can make nervous people less nervous.  Brave people can make scared people less scared.  Caring people can make selfish people less selfish.

Have you noticed that people who take pride their yards tend to have neighbors who take pride in their yards?  Mike and Diane Macdonell are our neighbors and they have a beautiful yard.  So I’m out there slaving away in our yard trying to keep up.

We influence each other.  We are interconnected.  Even as we wear masks and stay six feet away, it’s impossible to cut ourselves off from other human beings.  We infect each other, for good or for bad, in so many ways.

Not only that.  We don’t just influence each other.  There is such a thing as “three degrees of influence.”  For example, I influence you, then you influence a second person, then that person influences a third person.  The ripples of influence keep going out further than that, but current social science tells us that our lives have a measurable impact at least over these three degrees.  So it’s not just your friends who get depressed when you are in a bad mood.  It’s your friends’ friends’ friends.

What’s inside of you does not stay inside of you.  Whether it’s a virus or something you feel, think, say, or do, what’s inside of you will come out of you, and other people will be affected.

Which brings us back to that life-changing verse about hope I mentioned earlier.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

What’s in you will come out of you, so why not let God be the one who puts things in you?  Things like hope.  Why not let God fill you?  Because you see, you don’t have to be filled by your friends’ friends’ friends.  You are not at the mercy of random chains of influence.  You are not passively dependent on people or circumstances.  There’s that saying “garbage in, garbage out.”  You don’t have to be filled with garbage and then fill other people with that same garbage.  God is the God of hope and God wants to fill you with hope.  No.  Let’s read that verse more carefully.  It says the God of hope wants to fill us so that we “may overflow with hope.”  So God doesn’t fill us. God overfills us.  God causes us to overflow with hope.

Helen has converted me to coffee drinking.  It took her 40 years but she finally broke me down.  So every morning now I start my day with a cup of coffee from our Keurig machine.  There are three settings for how much coffee you want – 6 ounces, 8 ounces, or 10 ounces.  I have learned that if I press 6 and then 8, I will get 14 ounces of coffee.  Which fits perfectly into some of our coffee mugs.  But not all of them.  If I get the wrong one, it not only fills that mug with coffee.  It overfills it.  Which makes quite a mess.  Which is a bummer because then Helen has to clean it up.

When we overflow with hope, it’s a good thing.  Hope everywhere.  It’s not a mess.  It just means you have all the hope you can hold and more.  Which means there’s enough for you to share with other people the hope God has poured into you.  “My cup runneth over” (Psalm 23:5).

How does God fill us and overfill us with hope?  My coffee cup does not get filled and overfilled with coffee if it is sitting in the cupboard.  I have to place it close to the coffee source.  So we have to get close to God.  We don’t fill ourselves with hope.  We get close enough to the source of hope and God fills us.

How will God do that?  God will use scripture.  God will use inspired thoughts from those who wrote the Bible.  God will use inspired thoughts from others who are close to God.  God will use being with other people.  God will use being alone.  God will use music.  “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian when he sings.”  God will use the beauty of creation.  God will use worship.  God will use technology.  Not sure about that last one, but I’m pretty sure God can even do that.  God has many ways to fill us and then overfill us with hope.

Paul was one of those God inspired.  This verse, Romans 15:13 is too good for Paul to come up with it on his own.  And the most inspired part of all is the way it begins.  “May the God of hope . . . ”  That’s who God is. That’s God’s identity.  God is the “God of hope.”

Which was a new concept.  They thought of hope as many of us think of hope.  It is wishful thinking.  It is a delusion.  It is our last resort when nothing else has worked.  Here’s how Dallas Willard put it:

One of the remarkable changes brought by Jesus and his people into the ancient world concerned the elevation of hope into a primary virtue.  Hope was not well-regarded by the            Greco-Roman world.  It was thought of as a desperation measure (The Renovation of the Heart).

When I read this about hope as a “desperation measure,” it triggered a distant memory of a scene from one of the greatest movies ever made.  “Dumb and Dumber.”  There’s this guy who thinks he has a chance with a particular woman.  He doesn’t have a chance.  But he does have hope.

(YouTube:  “So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance?” – excerpt from movie)

He thinks he has a chance.  He doesn’t have a chance.  That’s the way a lot of people think of hope.  It’s not real.  It has no basis in reality.  We’re kidding ourselves.

But that’s not the way Christians think of hope.  Because we know that hope is part of God’s name.  His name is not just “God.”  The full name is “God of hope.”  That’s who he is.  That’s what he does.  He fills us to overflowing with hope.

And so we trust him.  That’s in this amazing verse, too.  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him . . . ”  We trust in him.  We trust the God of hope.  Even if we don’t get the particular answer to prayer that we really wanted to get, still we trust God.  We bet the farm on God.  Because it’s not about getting what we want.  It’s about trusting God whether we get what we want or not.

That’s in William Cowper’s hymn, too.  He gets it from Habakkuk chapter 3.  He knew his Bible.

Though vine nor fig tree neither, their wonted fruit should bear

Though all the field should wither, nor flocks nor herds be there;

Yet God the same abiding, his praise shall tune my voice,

For while in him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.

          We trust in God not because God gives us what we want.  We trust in God whether we get what we want or not.  It’s not about what we get.  It’s about who God is.  Our hope is in God whose very nature is hope.

It says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace . . .”  Joy and peace are byproducts of hope.  And like hope, they too are contagious.  Notice it doesn’t just say “joy and peace.”  It says, “all joy and peace.”  I think that means more joy and peace than we have yet experienced.  And not just for us.  There’s plenty for us, but the point is that what is in us comes out of us and infects those around us.  Our joy makes others more joyful.  Our peace makes others more peaceful.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work.  And we don’t have to wait until we can come back to church for it to work that way.  We don’t want to spread a virus.  Wear those masks.  Keep those six feet apart.  But we do want to spread hope and joy and peace.

And it’s really not hard to do that.  In fact, you are really good at doing that.  I should know.  Because I’m the one who gets your notes and texts and e-mail messages.  You infect me with hope and joy and peace.  You do it all the time.  You do it well.  I appreciate it way more than you can ever know.  But you can stop now.  You’ve been very generous with me.  Now think of someone else.  Someone who’s feeling hopeless, joyless, someone who is not feeling very peaceful.  Someone who feels alone and forgotten.  You have the power to change that.  It’s not hard.  And it is needed, maybe needed more now than before we had to stay at home and worship online.

Back to William Cowper.  In his depression, God surprised him with light.  And God inspired him to write this great hymn about hope.  Here is the rest of the story.

One of William Cowper’s best friends was John Newton.  If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he wrote “Amazing Grace.” Al Trachsel talked about God’s amazing grace in his sermon last week and you heard that hymn.  John Newton as a young man was a slave trader.  When he became a Christian and was convicted very deeply and very painfully of how wrong he had been.  So he wrote: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”  He became a pastor. And his consuming purpose for the rest of his life was the abolition of slavery.

He met William Cowper.  They shared a gift for hymn writing.  They wrote hymns together.  They also shared a passion for justice and specifically for the abolition of slavery.  William Cowper wrote a poem that he called, “The Negro’s Complaint.”  It’s too long for me to read it now, but I encourage you to find it on the internet and read it for yourself.  It is powerful. “The Negro’s Complaint.”  So powerful, so eloquent, so disturbing that two hundred years later it was often quoted by a pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr.  And then a 14-year-old boy was listening to the radio one day and heard a voice he had never heard before.  He couldn’t stop listening.  It was the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The boy was John Lewis.

So let’s see how that worked.  We have this slave trader named John Newton who was convicted of his sin and felt such guilt but found such grace.  Amazing grace.  He befriended this broken, gifted man named William Cowper who God had surprised with light and with hope.  Then we have the words of this poem that so moved Martin Luther King, Jr. who in turn spoke words that moved the conscience of a nation.  And John Lewis who was nearly martyred on that Edmund Pettis Bridge.  He survived, but Dr. King was martyred and John Lewis carried on his non-violent work.

Newton, Cowper, King, Lewis.  The friend of a friend of a friend.

This is a difficult time in our nation’s history.  It’s not just the virus.  We have been reminded of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go as the work of Newton, Cowper, King, and Lewis continues.  It’s a painful time.  We feel that pain in different ways and for different reasons. It’s a discouraging time, because it’s hard to see how we are going to get past all the divisions and all the bitterness.

But it is also a hopeful time.  The God of hope is with us and has never left us.  And hope is contagious.  More contagious than any virus.  Be a carrier.

  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” 


God of hope, fill us.  Overfill us.  Infect us with hope and joy and peace.  Surprise us with the light that you send just when it’s darkest.  Some of us are really discouraged right now.  Maybe about our personal life situations.   Maybe about all that is going on in our nation and in our world.  Maybe all we can see is gloom and doom.  Remind us that you are with us.  That you have never left us.  And as you inspired William Cowper to write:  “Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may; it can bring with it nothing but [you] will bear us through.” In Jesus’ name,  Amen.