There is a phenomenon airline pilots experience after flying all night. They fly through the blackness awake, alert, and able, but when the sun pops over their horizon they instantly become sleepy. This is counterintuitive but not contrary to experience. The adage that everyone knows but no one knows where it comes from expresses it: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Just at the point of rescue men despair.
Consider the ill-fated USS Indianapolis. After delivering parts for the first atom bomb, she was torpedoed by a Japanese sub. In the memorable movie “Jaws” Quint, the man hired to kill the shark, is a survivor of the USS Indianapolis. He vividly describes how the men fought off sharks and thirst for days and nights many succumbing to them. Two non-fiction books about this incident Fatal Voyage and In Harms Way (The latter being the shorter and better of the two.) recount how crazed men committed suicide even as they saw the rescue planes at last circling overhead.
Why would they? How could they? I don’t know. I do know I do the same – frequently. That’s why Paul assures us that our redemption is closer now than when we first believed. Surely, this isn’t a trite truism, i.e. it’s nearer because Christ’s return has to be chronologically closer now than it was yesterday. No, he tells us this because it doesn’t look any nearer. It looks like Jesus says it will in Luke 21, Men are fainting “from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world.” Jesus goes on to tell us what to do about it: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Luther says (AE, 29, 138) that Christ’s call to lift up our heads is a call to believe. It is, and it’s to go on believing precisely when you see the opposite of what you were promised. Don’t despair, don’t sink into hopelessness when everything around you preaches “Give up; it’s no use; He’s not coming.” If you do, when your rescue does dawn it will have the opposite effect on you. The Emmaus disciples had evidence of the fruition of their hopes, yet it was right then that they despaired, “But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” They gave up their hope in the face of it being fulfilled.
This is because “hope deferred makes the heart sick,” as Proverbs says. There is no reason to defer your hope: to think rescue is only about to come rather than to believe it’s here now in Words, Water, Bread and Wine. For if you keep deferring your hope you will make yourself heartsick and despair of redemption even as the Sun is rising with healing in His wings. No, rejoice in your hope of redemption; live in it. Laugh at your own hopelessness even as Abraham did when he finally realized that the Lord had purposely delayed giving him the promised child until there was no hope of him and Sara producing the child on their own.
The Lord meant for Abraham to despair of self but not of Him. In the recent movie “The Mist” you see what happens when a man despairs of God and hopes in self. When the protagonist knows he has no hope of saving his young son from the ravages of the monsters, he uses the last four bullets in his gun to kill the two people in the car with them and his son. He then leaves the car for the expected, horrific devouring by monsters. Instead, the mist lifts and the US Army is rolling in clearing out the monsters. What should be a moment of joy he can only see as the dawn of hopeless despair.
The Psalmist repeatedly asks himself the question, “Why are you in despair, O my soul?” And he always answers himself, “Hope thou in God.” Hoping in God there is no difference between a sky empty of rescue planes or one filled with them, between the mist thickening or lifting, between Abraham being 75 or 100, between the stock market at 14,000 or at 7,000, between oil at 120 a barrel or under 90. O there is a big difference to men, but none to God.
God never directs us to hope in ourselves, in others, or in the situation, but always in Him. God never told anyone who hoped in His promises, “You hoped in Me too much.” The Psalmist in Psalm 71 identifies God as his hope. Then he goes on to speak of adversaries who seek to hurt him in body and soul. He responds to this by simply saying, “I will hope continually.” As Paul puts it, Christian hope puts no one to shame (Romans 5:5).
So lift up your heads as you keep treading water looking for the day hope gives way to sight. Of course, if the waters you’re treading in are baptismal rather than the stormy seas of life, let go and drown. Then your new man will arise righteous, holy, and filled with hope. He doesn’t just tread the seas of life; he walks on them.