Hopeless. Have you ever felt like that? Totally without hope? You tried everything you could think of, you’re at the end of your rope, with no more solutions in sight and you wonder—am I hopeless? Now, I hope that the video and the actors didn’t make you think we’re down on counseling—we’re not. I saw a counselor for a while and it was one of the best things I ever did. I think the very fact that we can laugh at these extreme stereotypes is a reflection of the fact that we identify with this search for hope and meaning and purpose in life, because when people get to the point where they honestly believe that their lives are hopeless, it’s all over.
That’s why today—Easter Sunday—the day we’re supposed to celebrate life and hope—my goal is for you to become hopeless. Some of us need to give up hope of changing the past. Some of us need to give up hope of changing what others have done to us. Some of us need to give up hope of changing ourselves. But before you walk out because you think this is going to be depressing or condemning, give me a few minutes to show you that, for many people, giving up hope is our only hope. In order to do this, the first thing we need to learn how to do is it…
Give up hope of changing the past
You can’t change the past. Everybody knows that! (This is the kind of profound, never-before-heard stuff we offer here.) You can’t change mistakes you’ve made and you can’t change bad things that have happened to you. It sounds obvious, but if it’s so obvious, then why do we fantasize about the past being different; some people do it constantly—even daily—walking through the details of past mistakes and regrets, imagining and wishing we could go back and do it all again?
If it’s so obvious, why are some of us letting the guilt we feel for things we’ve done wrong continually hang over our lives like a black cloud?
If it’s so obvious, why are some of us still angry and bitter because of ways in which people have hurt us?
If it’s so obvious, why are some of us going through life allowing ourselves to be victimized and exploited over and over again by people and events of the past?
Remember playing foursquare when you were little? Deep down inside, we wish the past was like playing foursquare. Because if you messed up your serve, you could call “Do-over!” Some of us are still looking for a big “do – over.” Wouldn’t that be cool? “Whoops, I screwed up. Do-over! Let me try it again.”
“I didn’t mean to say that. Do-over!”
“Wait, I don’t want to throw away everything that’s really important to me. Do-over!”
If we’re looking for a do-over, we’re hopeless, but even though a do-over isn’t an option, there’s still hope. And in order to find the hope God has for you, you have to have a big “but.” Here’s what I mean:
You can’t change the past, but God can change how the past affects you
What makes us want to change the past? Guilt, regret, and pain for the stuff we messed up in our own lives and in the lives of others. The guilt and regret are there for good reasons—we messed up! However, the good news is that, even though trying to change the past is hopeless, letting God change how the past affects you is a guaranteed opportunity. Let me read you a real-life email I received yesterday from a man I know who was describing a conversation he had with someone who’s messing with drugs. This is what he wrote:
“I reminded him of what using drugs cost me—jobs, a marriage, and being a father. I tried to convince him that a few hours of being high is never worth the life-long disappointment that follows—knowing you’ve lost things you really wanted and will never have again.”
You can’t change the past, but God can change how the past affects you. If you’re not familiar with the Easter story, here’s the quick version: Jesus is betrayed by one of the men who had been living and traveling with him for three years. He’s arrested on false charges of political insurrection. He’s subjected to six mock trials. He’s repeatedly beaten and tortured. Then he’s presented before the city of Jerusalem, who are given the opportunity to ask for his release, yet no one speaks up for him. Then it says in the Gospel of Luke,
32Two criminals were led out to be 33crucified—Jesus on the center cross, and the two criminals on either side. (Luke 23:32-33)
At this time crucifixion was a form of torture. The only people who were crucified were slaves who had no official citizenship in the Roman Empire and criminals who had no one to defend them. At any time, Jesus could have stopped the whole thing. He could have walked away from the whole thing—but he didn’t. He let them nail his wrists and his feet to the cross—feeling iron stakes the size of railroad spikes—penetrating his skin and tearing through the muscles, and shattering the arches of his feet as they were pounded through to the wooden cross.
Every time the hammer struck a nail, he saw in his mind’s eye every sin ever committed by every person whose ever lived. He saw every one of my sins too. He saw every lie and every selfish act. He saw my thoughtless words and careless sarcasm—every one. There on the cross, Jesus is experienced unimaginable levels of sensory-overload: Intense physical pain from being mercilessly tormented and tortured. Intense emotional pain from being misunderstood, misquoted, misrepresented, humiliated, rejected, betrayed, and disavowed by people who vowed they would always be there for him.
He also experienced intense spiritual pain, seeing the true nature of each and every destructive, sinful thing we’ve ever thought, said, and done.
Am I saying this to make you feel guilty? No—because when Jesus opened his eyes for just a moment, letting the blood and sweat run and burn them, he began to pray. “Dear Heavenly Father, rip these people to shreds! Waste them! Make them feel every ounce of suffering they’ve given me because they deserve it. Hell with them for all I care, I’m out of here!” I’m sorry, I didn’t read it right. Let me try again. He prayed,
34“Father, forgive these people, because they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Through all of this, that’s Jesus’ prayer. “Forgive them. They don’t realize what they’re doing. Forgive them, even though they have no idea they even need forgiveness.” This is what he’s feeling and thinking about: Forgiveness. Compassion. Restoration. Redemption. On either side of Jesus’ cross were two criminals, also being crucified. And while they’re hanging there…
39One of the criminals hanging beside Him scoffed, “So You’re the Messiah? Prove it by saving Yourself—and us, too!” 40But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you are dying? 41We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41)
Both of these guys are staring down the barrel of impending death. But while one’s angry toward God, the other is searching. Look at what happens next:
42Then the thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your Kingdom.” 43Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)
If you have to have a spotless record in order to have a relationship with God, this guy’s hopeless. If you’ve got to get your act together before God’s willing to listen to you pray, then he’s hopeless. If you have to somehow pay God back for forgiving you, then he’s hopeless. If having a relationship with God is all about good deeds and church membership and looking all religious on the outside when you’re really dying on the inside, the this guy’s hopeless and Jesus’ answer to his question should’ve been, “No.”
The only thing this guy’s got is a willingness to believe he needs God’s forgiveness. But is that enough? Looks like it is. He can’t change the past, but at this moment, Jesus is radically changing how the past is affecting him—making it the very thing that puts him face to face with the God of the universe instead of pushing him away. Maybe that’s what God’s trying to do with you. Maybe God is trying to use the pain and the regret of past mistakes to show you that you need his love and forgiveness. God can change how the past affects you. In the same way, some of us need to…
Give up hope of changing how others have hurt you
Again, you need a “but.” You can’t change bad things people have done to you, but God can free you from bitterness and anger so that you don’t go through life being victimized over and over again by things that have been done to you. This is going to make me sound really old, but when I was a kid, I watched a show called “Kung Fu.” The main character was this gentle, soft-spoken drifter who would walk around trying to help people and preaching non-violence. But every week, someone would pick on him or pick on someone who was defenseless so he’d have to get into a fight with the bad guys. He never wanted to, but once he did, he always beat everyone up. I was in grade school and I wanted to be like the Kung Fu guy. I wanted to go find everyone who ever picked on me and beat them up. Then, every girl who didn’t want to be my girlfriend would like me and I’d say, “Sorry babe, you had your chance!”
Now of course, I’ve grown out of that. I never think about people who have said stuff about me that wasn’t true. I never think about people who’ve burned me. I never think about getting revenge. I wish! I’ve gotten a lot better, but it still comes around. One day there was a huge crowd following Jesus to see what would happen and it says this:
25 A woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. (Mark 5:25-26)
That word “bleeding” implies that her condition made her “unclean” according to the Mosaic law found in the book of Leviticus. Since she is unclean, she’s prohibited from being in a public place where she might touch others or where others might touch her, which would then cause them to become unclean. It doesn’t just say that the doctors didn’t or couldn’t make her any better, but that she suffered under their care. This is because medical care during this time often included a lot of superstitious ritual and experimentation. So she has been exploited by doctors, she has been rejected by her community based on their religious conventions and traditions. But she’s tired of continually being at the mercy of people who hurt her in the past. Look at what happens next:
27 She came up behind Jesus in the crowd and touched His cloak. 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. (Mark 5:27-29)
Put yourself in this woman’s shoes. She’s been victimized, exploited, rejected, and discarded, but Jesus cares about her. He cares about how she’s been used and abused and he wants to heal her so she doesn’t have to be a victim any more. So he says,
34 “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34)
She was forced to the bottom of the social and religious food chains, but Jesus meets her there and takes her to a new level that is even more important than the fact that she has been healed. And remember, he didn’t wave a magic wand and make the past disappear, but he healed the wounds and the pain inflicted upon her in the past. So how is he going to do that for you?
By showing you how to forgive and let go of the anger and bitterness and pain you’ve been carrying and then venting on the people you love. By showing you how the pain you’ve experienced can be used to make you compassionate instead of condemning. Peaceful instead of angry. Kind instead of harsh. But in order to experience that kind of transformation, you might have to…
Give up hope of changing yourself
I remember listening to radio psychologist listing tell-tale signs of insecurity. One was that, if you pull up to an intersection and see people in another car laughing and wonder of they’re laughing at you. And I’m hearing this and thinking, “I do that!” So I decided that I didn’t want to be insecure anymore and, from that point on, I just decided that I was going to be secure, centered, content, self-actualized, and never worry again about what other people thought of me. Sure would be cool if it was that simple and easy but truthfully, you can’t change yourself—all by yourself—but God can change you. He can change how the past affects you. He can give you the ability to heal from the wounds inflicted upon you by others so you don’t have to be a life-long victim. And he can change you when you can’t change yourself.
When you become a child of God and a follower of Christ by accepting and receiving God’s love and forgiveness and his promise that if you died today you’d be in heaven with him—when you do that, he begins a process of spiritual growth that includes extracting and purging destructive behavior and thinking that results in pain in your life and the lives of the people you love.
Those destructive patterns of thinking, speaking, and living are what the Bible calls “sin.” When I use the word, “sin,” I’m not talking about rules and expectations imposed on people by organized religion. I’m talking about words and actions, habits and addictions, all the stuff we do that hurts ourselves and the people we love. That’s the stuff God calls sin. Sometimes we think about the stuff we hear ourselves thinking and saying, and see ourselves doing and we say, “Man I wish I wasn’t like that!” The Bible says this about the kind of person God created you to be:
“The fruit of God’s Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Those are good things. Because when you meet someone who genuinely cares about other people; who is joyful and peaceful (without being weird); who is patient, kind, and good—you know you’ve met someone special and when we meet people like that, we typically wish we could be more like that ourselves. The hard part is that we want God to just inject these qualities into us but it doesn’t work that way. In fact, the best qualities in most people are often the result of difficult, challenging situations and relationships.
Have you ever met someone who has treated horribly all their life and they’re one of the nicest people you’ve ever met? Sometimes those hard times make us bitter, angry, resentful, just ticked off at the world and God. Or, they can make us better. When you invite God to come into your life—when you accept his love and acceptance, his forgiveness, and the promise that, when you die, you’ll be in heaven with him forever—when you do that he says that life-long process begins immediately, but we’re making choices every step of the way.
It’s like helping my kids with a homework assignment. One way or another, it’s going to get done and handed in on time. It’s their attitude and choices that make it easy or hard. As the parent, I’m like God. I know we’re going to see the project through, but if they resist and keep making excuses about how hard it is and how the teacher didn’t explain it right and how this is stupid and who cares how big Jupiter is then it’s going to be a painful process—but we’re going to finish no matter what. On the other hand, if they let us help them, they’ll get it in on time and they’ll get an A.
When you become a child of God, he begins a process that will change you from the inside out, but it’s not some kind of “spiritual transfusion.” It’s a journey that begins when you let God in and then ends on your last day of life in this world. God wants to take the challenges and tragedies of life and use those things to plant and grow good things in you. The problem is that we don’t get it. We don’t see it. We want to be better, but we don’t want become better. Let me say that again:
We want to be better, but we don’t want to become better.
In other words, we don’t to have to experience the things that make us better. We want to love people without being offended by them. We want to be patient with people without being annoyed by them. We want to be compassionate without experiencing pain. We want to be kind, but not to mean people. We want to be generous without cost. We want to help people in need without ever needing help ourselves.
If the people who know you best had to write down the nine words that describe you best, how many of these would be on that list from Galatians 5?
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I have a friend who designs and casts custom jewelry. When he starts, he draws a picture of what he’s going to make and tacks it up on the wall in his work area. Then he gets the raw gold or platinum and goes through a long, meticulous process of purifying the metals, and then pouring the molten metal into a mold. Then he has to grind and buff and smooth and detail the metal until it looks like the picture on his wall. Then he has to pick a diamond. And diamonds don’t come out of the ground looking like diamonds. They start out looking very rough—a lot like normal rocks. In order to get them to look the way we want them, they also go through the cutting and shaping and polishing before they’re just right. It’s a long, laborious, detailed process of purifying, shaping, and cutting until the project is finished.
God has a picture of you as you were designed and created to be. It’s a picture of you living in freedom from guilt and bitterness and insecurity and anger and fear; continually growing out of and overcoming every destructive behavior and thought and word you’ve uttered. But in order to experience that, we need to be like that condemned criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus. We need to come to God, willing to believe that he accepts and loves you just as you are. But also willing to believe that you need his forgiveness.
Of his 12 closes disciples, Peter was one of the most arrogant and cocky. He was sort of a know-it-all who was always correcting Jesus. The night Jesus died on the cross, Peter, succumbed to his worst fears and denied that he even knew Jesus, let alone believed in him. When it was all over, the Bible says that he broke down and wept bitterly. Some of you know what that feels like—to see the reality of your own weakness and failures so clearly—I’ve been there too. Peter was convinced that he’d failed so miserably that his faith was worthless. After Jesus had died and had been buried, he rose from the dead, and he found Peter again. This time Peter was different. He wasn’t arrogant. He didn’t make excuses. He didn’t blame his sin on anyone else.
Jesus said to Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter said, “Lord, you know everything. You know I love you.” (John 21:15-17)
Look what Peter says: “You know I love you.” Peter had just experienced the worst failure of his life. His credibility was shot. His faith was on life-support and Jesus met him there and used that situation to get him to a place where he would finally see that God loved Peter and that God knew Peter loved him and believed in him. From that day on, the Bible records how Peter changed and grew and impacted the lives of thousands of people during his lifetime.
Give up hope of changing your past. Give up hope of changing what others have done to you. Give up hope of changing yourself.
Some of you have an image of God as the Angry Creator who’s disgusted and impatient with you and your problems. It’s not uncommon for people who see God that way to vacillate between fear and anger. Maybe you’re tired of being afraid of God and feeling guilty, so you’ve became angry and defensive. The purpose of this church—the reason we’re here doing all the stuff we do, is to meet people wherever they’re at on their spiritual journey and to help them grow as followers of Christ.
Some people are still just checking the whole “Jesus” thing out and that’s fine. You’re welcome to come and check it out as often as you like. Some people have been burned by churches and religion or they’re just burned out on church and religion, so they’re cautious and moving slowly. That’s not a problem either. There’s no pressure here to be anything but who you are, right where you’re at.
But some of you have a relationship with God in Christ and you’ve done some stuff or you’re doing some stuff that you want to stop, but you’re afraid God won’t forgive you.
Or you’re a believer, but you still think you have to somehow make yourself worthy of God’s forgiveness—you just can’t seem to accept it as a free gift, so you never experience it—even though it’s yours for the taking.
Maybe you know you’re forgiven, but you struggle to think you have anything to offer other people.
Or maybe you’ve never accepted God’s forgiveness because you think he doesn’t want a relationship with you.
Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday to prove to Peter and people like us that he was who he said he was and that he could forgive sin and change lives like he said he could. Maybe today it’s your turn.
Thoughts and Questions for Group Discussion
“Giving up hope is really our only hope” is how John’s Easter Sunday message began. He said we should give up hoping that we can change our pasts. Logically we all know the impossibility of doing this, however many of us torture ourselves by re-living our pasts, trying to get "a do over".
· If you were to count all the time you’ve spent dwelling on or agonizing over past mistakes or past hurts, how many hours or even years would it add up to?
· You cannot change the past or get back any time you spent thinking about it. But if you choose to spend the same amount of time in the future praying to God over his plans for your future, how might that benefit you?
· Are you willing to stop yourself when you are dwelling over the past and instead, begin to seek God through prayer and/or studying the word.
· In so doing, do you think you would be taking a step toward handing that past to God?
· What is the hardest part of giving your past over to God, seeking his forgiveness and moving on?
While you can neither change what you have done nor what others have done to you, God can free you from the bitterness and anger you may feel toward others who’ve harmed you.
· Are you prepared to hand over not only actions (yours and others’) but also the emotional scars resulting from them?
· What about this scares you?
· Is there anything positive that can come from holding onto your pain?
· What is attractive then about keeping it inside rather than giving it to God?
In the illustration John used from Mark, the woman’s faith was what healed her according to Jesus.
· Do you see giving all these things to God as an act of faith?
· What would be holding onto your pain and your past be, in comparison?
· Jesus cared for her and loved her where she was (unclean, rejected by society, victimized at the hands of others).
· Do you believe you would be granted the same love from God, should you seek him?
· Do you think there is anything you could do which would keep God from forgiving you if you asked for that forgiveness?
From Galatians, John listed the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. He remarked that to gain these traits is a process, not an instantaneous occurrence.
· Which traits do you feel you have?
· Which would you most like to work towards?
· Are you willing to ask God in prayer for whatever would bring you these traits?
Remember that John taught that for God to begin a process in someone to get them to a point of patience, for example, might involve frustrating them to teach them that patience.
· Are you prepared to go through whatever God would put you through to become closer to him, more like Christ in your actions?
John summarized that we want to be better but we don’t want to become better.
· If you believe that life is a process of growing from where we are toward God, through changing our responses to things that happen to us, do you also believe God can get you through anything he gives you to help you grow?
· What about things others "give" you stemming from their own motives?
· Can you use God to get you through those times?
· Can you allow him to work in you in these circumstances as well?
· Is it possible for you to be a changed person as a result of giving every circumstance of your life over to God?
· What about that idea is an obstacle to you, if anything?