by Syd Hielema

“We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” . . . They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” —Luke 24:21, 32

I find hope the most difficult of the Building Blocks to get a handle on—maybe because it’s the deepest of the four. After all, Paul names it as one of the three great virtues that remain: faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13). It feels too big to understand.

Or maybe hope seems so big because it’s also easy to confuse with optimism or wishful thinking. We hope that our team wins the championship. We plan a significant project at our work or at our church, and we hope that it succeeds. We wake up, see that it’s a beautiful, sunny day, and somehow we feel more hopeful.

When my youngest son was six years old, my daughter and I coached his little league soccer team in Iowa. Every now and then we played another team that had a budding superstar who would score again and again, and by halftime we’d be losing 5-0. When the kids realized that the game would be a blowout, some of them would sit in the grass picking up ants, and others would run aimlessly up and down the sidelines looking like lost sheep. They knew the game was hopeless, and they lost concentration and energy.

I imagine that kind of hopelessness in the hearts of the two Emmaus walkers quoted above. They had fixed their hope on Jesus’ driving out the Romans, but instead those Romans crucified Jesus, and the disciples wandered back home like lost sheep.

I think it’s easy for church communities and Christian ministry to lapse into that kind of aimlessness and weariness too. The life of following Jesus and engaging in ministry is hard! 

I had my own Emmaus-type lesson in hope recently. My wife and I joined 25 others from our congregation on a spring break trip to Israel. Our northernmost stop was at Caesarea Philippi at the headwaters of the Jordan River. We stood together below a massive cliff face that had various Roman idols carved into the rock, while rivulets flowed over small waterfalls all around us.  Our guide then read from Matthew 16:13-18:

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

We looked at the massive rock face in front us and imagined Jesus standing there, naming Simon as “the rock”—and we realized how absolutely ridiculous that would seem. An unschooled, impulsive fisherman would be “the rock” when all the might of Rome was symbolized right there in the scenery? Utter foolishness.

And yet, two millennia later, the church bears redemptive witness all over the world in the name of  Jesus, while Rome is relegated to history books. On days when I’m not sure what hope looks like, that memory points me back to Jesus, and my heart burns within me again just a little bit more brightly.