Andy Dufresne sat down to lunch with his friends after getting out of solitary confinement. They asked him, “Was it worth it? Two weeks in the hole?” “Easiest time I ever did,” he said. “No such thing as ‘easy’ in the hole,” they replied. Andy tried to explain to them that the music he held in his head and his heart had made it easy. He tried to explain that you need music so that you don’t forget. “Forget?” Red asked skeptically.
“Forget. . . that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone — that there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. It’s yours.” “What are you talking about?” Red persisted. “Hope!” Andy answered. Red looked hard at Andy, “Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You better get used to the idea.”
From inside the gray walls of Shawshank State Penitentiary, Red looked around him and had no use for hope. He was not getting out alive, and he had gotten used to that idea. But of course, at the end of the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption,” something wonderful happened to both Andy and Red. Andy found his redemption, his freedom from Shawshank’s walls. So did Red. Against all odds, the parole board set Red free. And on a beautiful summer day sitting at the end of a stone wall in the middle a of hay field in Buxton, Maine, Red smiles at the words of a letter from Andy Dufresne, “Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
“The Shawshank Redemption” is of course a movie all about hope and redemption, or more specifically, it is about the hope of redemption from the horrible confines of Shawshank Penitentiary. I think that the movie wants to teach us some larger lessons about life. For example, it invites us to believe that our hopes can, somehow, be realized. That in the end, hope truly can yield its reward. Perhaps it wants us even to imagine that our hope can deliver us from the most improbable and impossible of circumstances, and so we should not give up no matter what.
But movies are just movies. And life is . . . well . . . real life. Life has its razor-wired limits that creative filmmakers can fly right over. In real life, “The Shawshank Redemption” may enchant me, but it also leaves me with more questions than it answers. Questions like, “In this messed up world, what does it mean to hope for redemption?” “What does redemption even look like?” “How does hope become reality?” “Is it just a matter of hard work and persistence or a matter of time?” “What is a foolish and false hope?” “When things get really, really bad, what can sustain my hope that something better is waiting for me?”
“God creates hope by making us promises.”
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is one person plagued by questions like this. According to our usual ways of distinguishing between what gives people hope and what robs people of hope, the Preacher should have been one of the most hopeful people in the world. He had everything he wanted and the freedom to use it. He was a king — the most powerful man in Israel. He could have anyone and anything his heart desired. He was wise enough to know how to use it. He had the freedom for which Andy Dufresne longed. And yet, in spite of sitting pretty, the Preacher was haunted by the meaninglessness of his life. The limited nature of human existence, the injustice of the world. The inevitability of a death that would take every pleasure and possession from him did not allow him to take comfort in what he had accomplished. From his view on the inside, even the Preacher had little use for hope.
Personally, I very much appreciate the pretension crushing truth. Unlike the lessons of “The Shawshank Redemption,” the Preacher delivers a much bleaker discourse on human limitations. At best, any hope offered by this present age is fleeting and finite. Certainly, our world is full of things that offer us comfort and hope. We enjoy so many advantages that can ease temporal suffering. And yet, “temporary” is the key word. We often lose sight of the fact that while God has given us these good things for us to use, they will all fail us in the end. They do not last. They (and we) will all turn to dust.
This truth weighed heavily on the Preacher. Unless you prefer living the illusion that things of this world have transcendent value, the ironic truth that the Preacher preaches seems to be that the more deeply you are invested in this present age, the more the allures of this age will play with your hopes. More creature comforts do not add up to more comforting hope. This is the counterintuitive equation experienced by the Preacher. But what other way is there for us to live? Human creatures seem fated to live the lie because, from all visible appearances, there does not seem to be any other way.
Now, as Christians, we of course believe that there is another way to live. We believe that God Himself has given His people a very different kind of hope. What sort of hope is that? How has He raised our hopes? What are we waiting for? So many questions and I must be brief. Think about it like this: God creates hope by making us promises. It is sort of like parents who make promises to their children. When my dad promised that we were going to A&W for root beer and footlong hotdogs, my sibs and I got excited. We couldn’t wait till suppertime. Dad’s promise created a lot of anticipation and desire. That was his purpose. He wanted us to trust him and look ahead to what was coming. He wanted us to love him for his kindness to us. This is what promises are designed to do — create hope. Think about our Lord. From Abraham right down to us, unlike any other god, our Lord is a God who makes promises — unhinged from obligation or conditions or provisos — no hedging from God. Promise upon promise to His beloved people.
I will pick one from the list. It is from the Prophet Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11 ESV). Jeremiah wrote this promise in a letter to exiles in Babylon, to people uprooted from their homes, to people who had lost everything, to people who had every reason to give up hope. The Lord made them a promise. The promise was that after 70 years, he would free them from Babylonian captivity and bring them back home (Jer. 29:10).
Don’t underestimate the enormous unlikelihood that this promise could be fulfilled — much more unlikely than Andy Dufresne’s redemption from Shawshank. Israel, the nation, was as good as dead. Jerusalem and the temple were 10 years from being destroyed (i.e., things would get worse before they got better). Babylon was an evil juggernaut. No one could make this promise and keep it . . . except our God. Quite literally, as He promised, He raised a dead nation, dead Israel, to life (cf., Ezek. 37:1-14). When our God makes a promise, He does not lie. He can and will keep it. He will do what He says.
Israel’s return from the Babylonian captivity is part of a pattern in how God keeps His promises. The pattern is this: Unlike other nations, Israel always got redeemed, usually when all seemed lost (cf., the miraculous birth of Isaac; the remarkable Exodus from Egypt; the redemptions detailed in the book of Judges; the restoring of one’s fortunes described in the Psalms). Again and again, God made Israel’s future hope an experienced reality, and when He did, Israel praised Him.
“Concordia Seminary is privileged to form students for this role — preachers of a peculiar hope.”
The pattern teaches us something about the sort of future redemption God actually has in mind for His people — what walls He actually plans to break down for them. God comes clean with those plans, of course, in the death and then resurrection of His beloved Son, Jesus.
You should think of Jesus as Israel condensed into one because in Him God fulfilled all the promises He had made to Old Testament Israel (2 Cor. 1:20). On the cross Jesus appeared to be beyond all hope and help. He was in His own Egyptian captivity, His own Babylonian bondage, and death was His evil juggernaut. We all know this. Yet, what looks impossible to us is easy for God. Just like Israel of old, the Father redeemed this Son from the grave as well. God always keeps His promises to Israel.
Jesus’ resurrection matters because by sheer grace, God has chosen to give the promise of the risen Lord to us. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son (Heb. 1:2). Here is God’s promise, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ . . . And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26-29 ESV). There’s the promise. Plain and simple. Israel’s resurrection is Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection. As Israel rose, so Jesus rose, so we will rise.
Peter says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4 ESV).
What are the implications of the living hope that is in us for how we should live our lives now? The prophet Jeremiah gives us some things to think about. First, many other prophets in Jeremiah’s day told the people that disaster would not come upon them and that all would be well with them. They prophesied peace, not judgment. Jeremiah warned that these were false prophets. He accused them of filling people with vain hopes (Jer. 23:16-17). He reminded them that from ancient times God’s prophets foretold of war, famine and pestilence against many nations and kingdoms. Then he added, “As for the prophet who prophecies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet” (Jer. 28:9 ESV).
Here is the still relevant, if disturbing, lesson: In the here and now, we have seemingly unlimited technological know-how. We enjoy unsurpassed advances in medicine. Every day, someone comes up with ways to improve our lives. Our potential seems as high as the sky. From many perspectives, it looks as if civilization is on the right track.
Yet, don’t be foolish enough to believe those who despise the Word of God and say that eventually we will prevail over evil. Don’t believe those who say that we have the means to overcome our human limits. Don’t believe those who say that there is no God to bring down His judgment upon us. Don’t put your hope for redemption in government, leaders, experts or anyone else. Those are foolish hopes. The truth is that things are going to get worse before they get better. Who wants to hear that? (Which is why Jeremiah had such a tough go of it in his ministry. He kept preaching judgment and no one wanted to hear it.)
Second, in connection with this, like ancient Israel, we need to realize that we will not escape the coming judgments of God. In this life, we suffer war, pestilence, famine, hardship, injustice, disease and especially death, along with everyone else. Darkness gets so dark that it is very difficult for us to see too.
But as the story of Israel makes clear and as God demonstrated by raising Jesus from the dead, the difference for God’s people is that the darkness has an end. It is temporary, not eternal. For us, God’s wrath lasts only a moment. His favor, an eternity. He promises to restore our fortunes. He promises that He will lead us through death to eternal life. He will change our mourning to rejoicing and our sighing to praise.
This is the hope to which we cling. But one final question: What sustains this hope when everything around us seems to proclaim the opposite truth? What sustains our hope when, like Red, all seems lost and when it seems as if there is no such redemption?
My answer: This is why God sent Israel His prophets, like Jeremiah, a prophet who preaches some of the most powerful sermons on hope that you will find in the Old Testament. Israel always had its preachers bringing God’s hopeful restoring Word of grace. And God still gives His people preachers. He has not forsaken us. It is the preacher’s job to sustain us with the Word of hope. It is the preacher’s job to preach God’s promises again and again, to proclaim God’s forgiveness over and over, to baptize and teach. It is their job to remind the sick and dying, the bruised reeds among us, the doubting Thomases, of the promise declared in our risen Lord, and thereby nourish our hope of all hopes.
Concordia Seminary is privileged to form students for this role — preachers of a peculiar hope. How precious is this gift God gives — a preacher! How important is his vocation — a hope lifter! May God continue to be with us, and all of you, and bless us in our lives together until He comes again to deliver on His promise!
Dr. Timothy Saleska is professor of Exegetical Theology and dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.