Christian Hope

Living Faith 10.1 and 10.2

“Many people think our job is to get my afterlife destination taken care of, then tread water till we all get ejected and God comes back and torches this place. But Jesus never told anybody—neither his disciples nor us—to pray, ‘Get me out of here so I can go up there.’ His prayer was, ‘Make ‘up there’ come ‘down here.’ Make things ‘down here’ run the way they do ‘up there.” —John Ortberg

We wait for a world on the way. Living Faith tells us that Christians are people who hope, not in their own potential, not in progress, but in God whose will for the world will get full traction on earth one day. God has prepared a future and will usher it in and it will blow our minds. The planet will flourish and life brimming over will come to all. Lions and lambs will lie down together, swords will get hammered into plowshares, and the whole planet will be detoxified. God will do it. Finally, God will triumph over all opposition and everything that disrupts creation. Salvation full on.

And what do we do while we wait for God? Some critics of the faith say that this kind of hope is an opiate, a pacifying pharmaceutical. It puts a person into a theologically induced sleep so he or she just sits around and waits it out, puts in time, kills time while waiting for God to act. Why get all activist if the renewal of the world is God’s work? Why bother with Presbyterian World Service and Development, with efforts to improve people’s lives and agitate for more humane arrangements in the world? Our hope, after all, isn’t in what we can pull off in the meanwhile waiting for God. God will do it. We cannot. So:

Sit down O people of God,
His Kingdom He will bring,
whenever it may be His will,
You cannot do a thing.

Living Faith does say, however, that while we wait for God to act decisively, we pray. We pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: “thy kingdom come.” Prayer is doing something. Prayer is an act of defiance at the way the world is—say “thy kingdom come” and you start holding out for better arrangements in the world than those currently on tap. Say “Our Father, let your kingdom land right here in this world,” and find that certainties about the way it’s got to be become, well, combustible. Prayer for God’s kingdom is a subversive act, as Karl Barth said, “to clasp one’s hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” In a class H. Richard Niebuhr taught on the Lord’s Prayer, he said that praying ‘thy kingdom come’ is like yelling at the bottom of a snow – laden mountain. You’re asking for an avalanche! Hope in the form of prayer for God’s kingdom is asking for an intrusion into the world that changes everything. Praying Christians participate in the coming of the Kingdom by divine invitation.

Another thing that needs to be said is that often Christian hope for a renewed world coming from God is more like an amphetamine than an opiate. Get your imagination stoked with visions of the world God will bring and find yourself discontent with the way it is right now. Living Faith talks about pictures of the age to come. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, imagine a place and a time where implements of war are turned to the service of feeding people. Imagine a place where God wipes away tears from every eye and justice and peace embrace. Let that settle into you and what happens is a great discontent with plowshares turned to swords, lions eating lambs and justice denied by impatient power. People whose imaginations get sanctified by the pictures of scripture say things like “I have a dream” and act to stoke discontent in the world through graceful gestures that point toward the renewed heaven and earth God will bring. They testify to a little of the already – kingdom in our not – yet – there world.

Jim Wallace tells the story of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at St. George’s Cathedral during the period of apartheid in South Africa. When a group of soldiers came in to shut a service down, Tutu pointed at the soldiers lining the walls and said: “You are not God, you cannot mock God, you’ve already been defeated.” After waiting a tense moment, Tutu came out from behind the pulpit, flashed a smile and said: “So you might as well join the winning side.” That’s hope in God and in God’s Christ as amphetamine. That’s waiting on the kingdom of God stoked by pictures of scripture.

Living Faith says, “God has prepared for us things beyond our imagining.” However, it also says, “life in the age to come is pictured in the Bible,” and my, those pictures do entice.


About Richard Topping

Rev. Dr. Richard Topping is principal of the Vancouver School of Theology.