I once read in a collection of sermons of a pastor who, fresh from a visit to the Holy Land, had a great vision: He would erect a garden, a place of prayer, a chapel in his home town of Covington, Kentucky. This garden would bring the Holy Land to persons who would never have the opportunity to see it.
He purchased land and solicited contributions. Flowers and trees from 24 countries were gathered and planted. The carpenter’s shop contained tools from Nazareth. A replica of the open tomb added the Easter spark. Overlooking the entire project stood a gigantic statue of Jesus, which could be seen for miles. In 1959, after 21 years of labor, the pastor opened his beautiful dream park to the public. He called it “The Garden of Hope.”
Almost immediately, however, the Garden of Hope became a source of disappointment. The tropical plants and trees, which could not adapt to the new climate, began to die. But worst of all, because the park did not attract the anticipated number of visitors, it ran into financial difficulties and finally went bankrupt. Soon the Garden of Hope degenerated into a vision of tragedy. Weeds grew everywhere. The chapel was padlocked. And the lonely statue of Jesus fell into disrepair.
The failed Garden of Hope is an apt symbol of our generation. In the 1960s, people in our land were filled with optimism. The outlook for the future was good, we were told. No problem was so large that it could not be solved, given enough time and money. The expansionism of the Eisenhower years gave way to John F. Kennedy’s brief, shining Camelot. After the tragedy of Dallas, our new leader, Lyndon Johnson, rekindled the hope, convincing us the Great Society was about to be inaugurated in the United States of America.
But that has all changed. No longer is optimism the word of the day. Our problems are out of hand, and the world seems to spin out of control. The technology that promised us utopia has turned out to be a mixed blessing. The same advancements that have placed a new car in every driveway and a VCR in every family room have also brought us the nightmare of a possible ecological holocaust. Chernobyl, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, devastated Brazilian rain forests, and the depleted ozone layer serve to remind us that our naïve optimism had a cost.
Because of the spreading sense of looming tragedy, the hallmark of our day is pessimism. In Herzog, Saul Bellow put it this way:
What is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is Dead. That period was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated, Death is God. This generation thinks—and this is its thought of thoughts—that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb.
The Death Of Hope
Our situation is not unique. It resembles the experience of the world nearly two thousand years ago. Like ours, that world was enveloped in deep darkness. The traditional religions had become irrelevant and ineffective and, as a result, were dying out. Repeated military skirmishes dashed anticipations of peace. Vast segments of society groaned under the reign of cruelty, evil, and inequality. There were more slaves in the Roman Empire than citizens. Women were treated as little more than possessions. Life was so cheap it could be thrown to lions or the gladiator fights without the blinking of an eye.
Yet, in the midst of that darkness, there appeared on a Galilean hillside a promise of hope: a prophet hailed as a sign of light. He proclaimed a stirring message of love and of a God who is love. His ministry entailed signs and wonders, which the prophet claimed were performed “by the finger of God.”
The ministry of the prophet from Nazareth aroused great expectation. In the minds of many, he had come to fulfill the longings of generations for a savior for Israel, perhaps for the whole world.
Simeon greeted the infant Jesus in the temple with a hopeful prayer: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:30–32, NIV).
The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth instilled hope in the hearts of many. His presence gave birth to optimism, for it appeared that in him God was acting against evil. Perhaps the future was not bleak after all, but could be welcomed.
But the renewed optimism, the hope, was once again dashed. On a bleak Friday morning, Jesus’ enemies took him prisoner, and after a mock trial, soldiers nailed the prophet to a cross. Once more, hatred and evil seemed to speak the last word.
The crucifixion of Jesus worked psychological defeat in the hearts of his followers. Two disciples expressed the sentiments of all: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Filled with anxiety and disappointment, the disciples went into hiding.
Their defeat and pessimism was symbolized by a graveyard outside the city of Jerusalem, the burial ground of their slain leader. For them this plot of land, designed to be a beautiful garden for memorializing the dead, had become a wilderness of despair. And if the death of their leader did not bring sufficient anguish, on Sunday morning the women brought the news that the body of their Lord had been stolen. Not only were they denied the life of this man, but now even in his death they were denied a shrine with which to keep his memory alive. Driven by anxiety, Peter and John set aside their fear of the soldiers, burst from their hiding place, and rushed to the tomb to see for themselves. Was it possible that someone had indeed done this?
But then for John, and subsequently for the others, their wilderness of despair was changed into a garden of hope—hope on a higher plane. God had in Jesus not only acted against the forces of evil, but against death itself. This conviction kindled a new hope in the disciples, generated by the amazing reality of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Note that the transformation of the disciples did not come about because their world had changed. The situation that confronted them on Sunday was no different than the grim reality that had run wild on Friday. Rome still occupied Palestine. The Jewish authorities were still adamant in their opposition to Jesus’ message. And evil was still rampant.
The radical change from despair to hope occurred because of the addition of a new perspective in the face of the pessimism-producing outward reality that engulfed the first-century world. Death had been conquered by Jesus, and therefore every enemy had in principle been defeated by the Risen Lord. Because of this new dimension, the disciples’ fear and gloom were changed to courage and joy. And empowered by this reality, these men and women went out into that situation and turned their world and its problems upside-down.
A New Perspective
Jesus’ tomb is still empty. Because of this, the exact same result remains possible for us as well: Hope on the highest level. For the last word still belongs to Jesus, and not to any of his enemies, even his enemies at the end of the twentieth century. God has indeed acted in Jesus and will act again for the salvation of the world. And because of this expectation, a change can occur in the heart of every person alive. Fear and despair can give way to a courage and joy that changes the world.
The transformation from despair to hope, however, does not come because our viewing of the empty tomb automatically alters our external situation. On the contrary, the foreboding problems we face remain. Instead, hope is possible because God gives us in this daunting situation a new perspective. Jesus has conquered death and evil. And therefore every enemy has been defeated in principle for us as well.
The empty tomb changes our pessimism and despair into optimism and hope. We are hopeful for our individual destinies, for that same Holy Spirit who has regenerated our spirits will one day transform our bodies, conforming us to the image of the resurrected Christ. We are hopeful for the church, as well, because the resurrected Lord promises victory to his people in the completion of the mandate to evangelize and minister to the world: “I will be with you to the end of the age.” And we are hopeful for history itself. It may appear that the world has spun out of control, but the risen Jesus is still Lord. The future may appear bleak, and we may be surrounded by darkness. But at the end of history, giving meaning to history, stands the risen Lord Jesus Christ, who beckons us to follow after him, to move forward under his direction and in the power of his strength.
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