by Pastor Andy Woodworth
There is a short Old Testament phrase that I have found intriguing during these past weeks of this global pandemic. It is used by people like Joshua, Gideon, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel when they simply reached the place where they perceived things had become hopeless. Tired, frustrated, and out of ideas as to how to resolve their respective crisis situations, they threw up their arms and exclaimed, “Alas, Sovereign Lord!”
This word alas is less of a word and more of a sound or cry of exasperation. I would call it the sound of despair. The sound of hopelessness.
Times of great uncertainty, such as a global pandemic, generate high levels of anxiety because of the unpredictability of the outcome. During the murkiness of uncertainty, we either lose our way because of despair, crying alas, or we push forward driven by a greater sense of purpose—something beyond ourselves. Needed during times of crisis and turmoil is a sense of hope or at the very least hopefulness.
Hope is one of those nebulous terms like the word love. It becomes part of our everyday conversations with its true meaning being diminished by the saturation that comes as a result of overuse. Nevertheless, hope, like love, is an anchor point in Scripture that connects us to the very heart of God. Hope empowers the believer to an extent that far exceed anything gained by mere wishful thinking.
Russia and Change
In 1871, life was good for Mennonites living in Russia. They had enjoyed years of peace and had been given the opportunity to flourish. But change was being thrust upon them as a political shift was imminent. Comfort, stability, security, and prosperity were being challenged by the pressures of Russian nationalism. In the face of a rising crisis some were trusting that life could eventually return to normal after they wait out the storm; while others foresaw the need to take more significant steps.
Following an exploratory trip by delegates to Manitoba in 1873, the decision was made by the Kleine Gemeinde to emigrate from Russia to Canada. Now, when a choice in made in haste it is considered reckless; so the process took time and involved much prayer and deliberation. And when a call for action is necessary, but it is avoided, then it is considered derelict, so plans were pursued with purposefulness.
The choice to risk it all and migrate halfway around the world proved to be the right decision at the right time for this group of Mennonites. Looking back, we see that the fuel that sustained those early pioneers was hope—hope that their God and their faith would enable them to persevere through whatever may lie ahead for them.
The Battle with Fear and Worry
As those first families prepared to make the move to Canada it was not because of overwhelming evidence that guarantee of a positive outcome. There was something greater in them that guided their decision-making. For most people, fear and worry are not the stimulus for good decision-making and decisive actions. Excessive fear and anxiety will propel us towards the comforts of the known—what has been considered safe or familiar in the past. Hope is needed if we are to move beyond the familiar and into the realm of new possibilities in Christ.
COVID-19 and Fear
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis we have been inundated with messages of fear and uncertainty. Modern media thrives on promoting a culture of fear. Yet we know from the stories of the Church that during times of great crisis the Lord will do even greater things through those who place their trust in Him. It has been this way from the very beginning of the Church Age and has continued through to this very day.
During times of worldly despair those who place their faith in Christ arise with hope and reveal the pathway to peace. This is our day to shine forth the light of Christ once again with the hope of the Gospel. It’s a time to shake off the paralysis of fear and worry and rise up with confidence in God’s Word with faith, hope and charity. What lies before us are new possibilities in Christ which we will only pursue if we are guided by hope.
In the aftermath of the chaos of the crucifixion, the disciples of Christ hid away in a locked room because of their overwhelming fear of what might take place next. Even with reports of Jesus’ resurrections, these followers of Christ were crippled by the uncertainties of the times. They had lost focus and needed to be guided back. Then Jesus appeared (John 20:19-22).
In their place of isolation, Jesus speaks of what they will be and not to what they are in the moment. They were meant to be the sent ones, but instead they were afraid go outside, overwhelmed with despair. As those disciples accepted Jesus’ words as truth, it effectively bumped their debilitating thoughts out of the forefront and allowed the Holy Spirit, Who is the antithesis of fear and worry and the essence of hope, to be their guiding light.
The Path of Hope
Jesus went to great lengths to not only comfort His disciples during the time of crisis, but to also equip and guide them as to how to approach any future troubles. Jesus warned His followers early on in His ministry to expect that there would be times of persecution, struggle, and trials. Then He prepared them to endure. He taught them the way to hope.
Hope is not just wishful thinking. It is the result of two things: faith and practice. Faith is the assurance or sureness that what Jesus says and what His Word says is true and trustworthy. Those early Mennonite immigrants trusted in something beyond their own understanding, but faith alone was not the objective. Faith was the staging point that enabled them to take action.
The disciples locked in their place of isolation needed to trust in the words of the Messiah more than in their perception of reality if they were to pursue their calling. They needed to see beyond themselves and their present circumstances to have an awareness of the possibilities that lay ahead with Christ as their guide. This is hope and it empowers us to act in the midst of a storm and not just take shelter from it.
A Call to Faith
The Apostle Paul explains this process in Romans 5:1-5. Faith is what justifies the believer, what brings them to the place where they need to be in order to do what they are called to do. He talks about this being the place of peace—where we rest in the grace and love of God. We then establish two focal points. First, we focus on the hope of eternity, what we believe is in store for those who accept Christ as Saviour. Then, we focus on “what’s next?” What do we do in the now?
In spite of all that may be swirling around us, what are we being led to do by the Spirit of the Lord? Then, as we act upon His Word, we see a strengthening occur of perseverance and character. The sum result is these things is what we call hope.
This hope goes deep and sustains us even in the most challenging of times. Hope empowers us to live as we are called to live even when we may feel overwhelmed by the things that are before our very eyes. Hope takes us to places that we may have never imagined and enables us to do what we may have never thought possible. There is cause for excitement in what lies ahead because these are the type of days when God moves in extraordinary ways. Hope!
Andy Woodworth is the lead pastor of Heartland Community Church. Andy and Stephanie have been in ministry since 1989, serving with the Wesleyan (Methodist) Church and with the BIC Church (Anabaptist). They have served in Landmark, Man., since March 2015.