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(Romans 4:18-19) The Hopeless Case

(Romans 4:18-19) The Hopeless Case

Ref: Romans 4:18–19

Abraham was the father of many nations. He inherited the promise of God that through his seed all nations would be blessed. He was chosen directly by God to father a holy priesthood of people. But Abraham was also a hopeless case. He was old, and his wife was long past child-bearing years. There was no way, humanly speaking, he could father a son. But amidst the seemingly impossible situation, he never took his mind off the fact that when God makes a promise . . . He keeps it.


The Hopeless Case

Romans 4:18-19

You have probably heard the story of Teddy Stallard before.  It has been emailed to me over the years at least a dozen times.

Teddy Stallard was a boy that his teacher, Miss Thompson, really didn't care for - he wasn’t interested in school.  He had a blank expression on his face and his eyes had a glassy, unfocused appearance.  When she spoke to Teddy, he always answered in monosyllables.  His clothes were dirty and his hair was unkempt.  He wasn’t an attractive boy and he wasn’t really liked by the other students either.  She should have known better; and, because she was a Christian, she should have cared more.  She had Teddy’s records and she knew more about him than she wanted to admit.  The records read:

1st Grade: Teddy shows promise with his work and attitude, but a poor home situation.

2nd Grade: Teddy could do better.  Mother is seriously ill.  He receives little help at home.

3rd Grade: Teddy is a good boy, but too serious.  He is a slow learner.  His mother died this year.

4th Grade: Teddy is very slow, but well-behaved.  His father shows little interest in him, his school, his world.

Christmas came and the boys and girls in Miss Thompson’s class brought her Christmas presents.  They piled their presents on her desk and crowded around to watch her open them.  Among the presents, there was one from Teddy Stallard.  She was surprised that he had brought her a gift, but he had.  Teddy’s gift was wrapped in brown paper and was held together with Scotch tape.  On the paper were written the simple words, “For Miss Thompson from Teddy.”  When she opened Teddy’s present, out fell a rhinestone bracelet, with half the stones missing, and a bottle of inexpensive perfume. 

The other boys and girls began to giggle and smirk over Teddy’s gifts, but Miss Thompson at least had the sense to silence them by immediately putting on the bracelet and applying some of the perfume on her wrist.  Holding her wrist up for the children to smell, she said, “Doesn't it smell lovely?”   The children agreed.  At the end of the day, when school was over and the other children had left, Teddy lingered behind.  He slowly came over to her desk and said softly, “Miss smell just like my mother...and her bracelet looks real pretty on you too.” 

When Teddy left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked the Lord to forgive her.  The next day when the children came to school, they were welcomed by a new teacher. 

Miss Thompson had become a different person. . .now not just a teacher but an agent of God, committed to loving her children.  She began to pay attention to the slow learners and especially Teddy Stallard.  By the end of that school year, Teddy showed dramatic improvement.   He had caught up with most of the students and was even ahead of some.  The next year she didn't see much of Teddy - months blended into years; then one day, she received a note that read:

Dear Miss Thompson:

I wanted you to be the first to know.  I will be graduating from high school second in my class.

Love Teddy Stallard

Four years later, another note came:  Dear Miss Thompson: They just told me I will be graduating with highest honors.  I wanted you to be the first to know.  The university has not been easy, but I enjoyed it.  Love, Teddy Stallard

Four years later:

Dear Miss Thompson,  As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D.  How about that?  I wanted you to be the first to know.  Oh, and I’m getting married next month, the 26th to be exact.  I would like you to come and sit where my mother would have sat if she were alive.  You are the only family I have.”

And so Miss Thompson went to the wedding and sat where Teddy's mother would have sat.  She deserved to sit there; because years earlier, she had given him the one thing he needed the most – she had given him hope.

According to a Fall 2001 national survey conducted by the University of  Michigan Institute for Social Research; only one out of 5 responded that they feel hopeful about the future.  The same survey had been conducted 10 years earlier, and 3 out of 5 felt hopeful about life.  Today – barely 1 in 5 had hope.   

Citation: Marilyn Elias, “Proud to be American” USA Today Online (10/11/01)

John Maxwell tells about a small town in Maine that was proposed for the site of a hydro-electric plant.  A dam was going to be build across the river and the town would be submerged  in water as a result.  When the project was announced, the people were given many months to arrange their affairs and relocate.  During those months, a curious thing happened.   All improvements ceased.  No painting was done. 

No repairs were made on any of the buildings, roads, sidewalks, or homes.  Day by day the entire town got shabbier and shabbier.  A long time before the waters were supposed to sweep through the town, it looked abandoned, and uncared fro even though the people had not yet moved away.  One citizen explained: “Where there is no faith in the future, there is not power in the present.”  The town was doomed with hopelessness because it had no future.

It knew that it’s future was hopeless . . . and it lived the same way.

An author once penned the words, “We can live forty days without food, eight days without water; four minutes without air, less than one minute without hope.”

I spent some time this week thinking about those things that seem to steal us of our hope.

Unmet needs . . . unwanted circumstances . . . unrelenting pressure . . . unexpected trials . . . unfulfilled promises.

I believe you could boil all the reasons for losing hope down to one statement – “A loss of hope begins when you realize you are not be getting out of life what you thought you would, and it culminates in the conviction that you never will.”

In other words, string enough losses or reversals, or difficulties, or disappointments together and you will find a person who eventually comes to the conviction that life will never produce . . . is what could be called hopeless.

Every person I’m speaking to today will have plenty of reasons to calculate life to be hopeless, unless something outside of themselves happens.

For that small town the water still came . . . for most of the people polled in that survey, left alone by ourselves, we may all come to the conviction that life is hopeless.  But for Teddy Stallard, there was a teacher. 

I want to unveil for us all a teacher . . . an inspired teacher named Paul through who’s teaching the Holy Spirit whispers into our hearts that there is hope. 

And I want to simply point you to Paul’s lesson plan in Romans chapter 4 where he teaches by merely retelling the story of a hopeless case.  A man named Abraham. 

You want to talk about unmet needs . . .

            talk about unwanted circumstances . . .

                        unrelenting pressure . . .

                                    unexpected difficulties . . .

         and most importantly, talk about an unfulfilled promise . . . he had it. 

And let me remind you, it wasn’t a promise Sarah made to him that wasn’t kept . . . it wasn’t a promise his father Terah never came through on . . . it wasn’t a promise that Lot, his nephew didn’t keep, oh no.  This was a promise from God.

If there was anybody who had the right to calculate life as hopeless, it was Abraham.

Perhaps the reason Abraham is the greatest example of living faith is because his case did indeed seem hopeless. 

Absolutely, undeniably hopeless.

And yet from his life story, you discover those things that create, that foster, that fertilize, that cultivates and promotes and develops and nurtures hope.

Speaking of Abraham, Paul writes in Romans 4:17. (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.18.  In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” 19.  Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.

These verses provide several powerful ingredients which, when mixed together, create the sweet manna of hope. 

Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase, The Message, put it this way, “When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway.  [How?]  He decided to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do, but on what God said He would do.

I commend to you the first ingredient of hope: it is the resolution to believe without clearly seeing.

Let me quickly say, if you were hoping for some easy ingredients from which you could concoct the salve of hope, I must tell you . . . hope, like diamonds do no lie on top of the ground . . . they are deep beneath the surface.  Hope is an ancient treasure that must be diligently sought after.

The question is not, do you want hope?  Every one will answer “Yes!”  The question is, “How badly must you want it?”

I’m reminded of the young man who approached Aristotle one afternoon, and asked, “How can I have wisdom?”  Aristotle, got up and said follow me.  He walked down several streets until they arrived at shallow pool in the town square.  Without pausing He gathered up his robes and began wading out into the water.  The young man stopped, then pursued after him.  When Aristotle was in the middle of the pool, he suddenly turned, grabbed the young man by the neck and pushed his head under water.  The student flailed away with his arms, but to not avail.  Finally, at the last possible moment, Aristotle pulled the young man up, dragged him over the edge and set him down.  The boy was gasping and sputtering his amazement.  Aristotle simply asked him, “Young man, when I held you under water, what did you want more than anything in the world?”  The young man said, “Air sir, air!”  Aristotle said, “When you want wisdom that badly, you will find it.”  And he walked away.

Everybody wants wisdom, but most can live without it.

In the same way, everybody wants hope; but most don’t care to find it.

Ladies and Gentlemen, hope is discovered by those who cannot live without it!

By those who want it so badly that they resolve to believe the promise of God even if they never see it come to pass in their lifetime.

Go back to verse 17 and notice the human absurdity of the verb tense.  “A father of many nations have I made you.” 

This verb tense indicates something that is already actualized.  And from God’s perspective, it was.  In His sight, it was already done!

But Abraham never saw it happen!  Where are your nations Abraham?   Where are they that number as the sands of the sea and the stars in the sky?

What’s even more ironic is the fact that when God made His promise to him, his name was Abram.  Which meant, “Father of many.”

He wasn’t the father of many . . . he was the father of none!

Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote, “The servants of Abram took good care of the needs of the camels and the servants of the traders.  Food was sold to the travelers.  And in the evening time the merchants would have come to Abram’s tent to pay their respects. The questions would have followed a typical oriental pattern.  Who are you?  How old are you?  How long have you lived here?  What is your name?  It must have happened a hundred times, a thousand times, and each time more galling than the time before.  “Oh, Father of many!  Congratulations!  And how many sons do you have?”  “None.”  And, many a time there must have been the half concealed snort of humor at the absurdity of the name and the fact that there were no children to back up the name.  Abram must have steeled himself for the question and the reply, and have hated the situation with bitterness.  I once knew a man who last name was Wrench and he told me that he divided all of his acquaintances into two classes; those who did not make wisecracks about his name and those who did.  He said that he automatically cringed when someone would hear his name and begin one of the wisecracks which he had already heard, “was he related to monkey wrench; was he the left handed wrench.  I once knew a Mr. Meek who had been asked a thousand times if he had inherited the earth.  Abram would have understood it well.”

Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans Vol. 2, Eerdmans Publishing, 1982, p. 312

It doesn’t stop there my friends.

In Genesis 17, God meets with Abraham again.  It’s been 13 years since the birth of Ishmael, whom Abram fathered through Sarah’s servant girl Hagar.

He has become the father of one!

Now, God meets with him to reiterate His promise of a multitude of nations coming from Abram.  And in that meeting God changes Abram’s name. 

Barnhouse adds with humor these words, “I cannot help but think of what must have happened when Abram broke the news to his family that he was changing his name.  They all knew the thorn of his former name, Abram, father of many.  So we can imagine the stir of interest and curiosity when he announced, “I am going to change my name.”  Were there some who said to themselves with a laugh, “The old man couldn’t take it.  It finally got under his skin.  After all, to be father of nobody for 86 years, and then to be the father of only one, with a name like he has – father of many – must have its rough moments.  So, he is going to change his name after all.  I wonder what it will be.”  And then the old man spoke.  “I am to be known as Abraham – Father of a multitudes.”  We can almost hear the silence of the stunned moment as the truth breaks upon them.  Father of multitudes.  Then the laughter broke forth behind the scenes.  “The old man has gone crazy.  He had one child when he was 86, and now at 99 he is beginning to get ideas. Father of a multitude!  How ridiculous.     Ibid, p. 316

And so it seemed.

Let the news slip out on that campus . . . in that dorm room . . . in that office complex; “You believe what?  You believe that God created everything there is?  You believe He’s gonna take you to a literal heaven one day?  You believe that He’s really gonna recreate the earth and sit on the throne of David?  You believe God is in control of this world?  You believe that everything in your life is gonna work out according to some Divine plan and purpose?  Are you crazy?”

It is in the heart of a person like that, who believes without clearly seeing and, may I add, without completely understanding, that you discover the ancient treasure called hope.

The second ingredient of hope is the choice to trust without corresponding evidence.

  1. Without becoming weak in faith. . .

Wait a second . . . if I read the record right, Abraham had many moments of weakness.

The graciousness of God – he seems to forget all the stumbling along the path of obedience and rewards the act of faith.  Notice, “without becoming weak in faith . . .”

Sure he did – he agreed to have relations with Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar and she bore a son named Ishmael.  At one point, Abraham asked God to count Ishmael as the son of promise . . . but God refused.

Ishmael was the decision of faithlessness, not faith.  He was Sarah’s idea, not God’s.

The son of the covenant promise to Abraham would be the result of God’s miraculous intervention – and Abraham had to learn to trust God’s word alone.

He did have moments of weakness, but the graciousness of God summarized his life in light of his ultimate faith in God’s sovereign plan.  And he speaks of Abraham through that perspective.

Just as he will one day speak to those of us who have placed our faith in Christ . . . He will one day say to all of us who did not always do well, “Well done.”

He will say to all of us who were not always good and  faithful, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”  How?  Because of His incredible grace and eternal perspective which even now views us in Christ as perfected already.

Our records have been swept clean by the blood of Christ.

So he speaks of Abraham in this text, through the perspective of his relationship by faith in God . . . and reveals for us that from His perspective, the record of Abraham has been swept clean.

Now notice the evidence that doesn’t seem to correspond with the promise.

19b. he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.

If the first ingredient of hope is the resolution to believe without seeing it fulfilled, then clearly, the second ingredient is to trust without corresponding evidence being supplied.

It’s as if Paul emphasizes Abraham’s dilemma.  Just look at the evidence.  My body is as good as dead – I’m 100 years old.  And Sarah’s no spring chicken either.

How do you trust in the face of such evidence?!

Is this not the stumbling block of faith?!  Is this not the reason why so few have hope?  

Will you trust Him without evidence?!

In John chapter 14 Jesus is speaking to his disciples whose hearts were losing hope.  He had told them of His impending death.  He said to them in verse 1,  “Let not your hearts be troubled.”  How?  “You believe in God, believe also in me.”

Translating that wonderful verse so that the tenses of the Greek verbs are exposed, Jesus Christ said emphatically, “Stop letting your hearts be in anguish . . . keep on believing in God . . . keep on believing in Me!”

Now, you need to know that has nothing to do with believing so you can go to heaven. . .this has to do with believing so you can make it through life.

Why would the disciples face a great test to their belief in Him?  Because of the evidence they were about to see. 

Jesus had claimed to be eternal God robed in flesh . . . He said He was the Messiah . . .the King of Kings.

But the evidence?!

The evidence is Judas;

            the evidence is Ciaphas;

                        the evidence is Pilate;

                        the evidence is burly Roman soldiers and a whip;

                                    the evidence is a crown of thorns;

the evidence is an inability to walk up a hill carrying the cross beam;

            the evidence is the crucifixion;

                        the evidence is a dead body;

                                    the evidence is a tomb!

Now, don’t misunderstand.  Faith and hope do not ignore the evidence. 

They just stand in awe of what God will do to fulfill His promise, in light of the evidence.

Hope doesn’t ignore the evidence, it just doesn’t stop there.

And hope doesn’t minimize the difficulties and challenges of life either!

In the Book of Numbers, Joshua and Caleb, along with 10 other spies entered the promised land to spy out their challenges to possessing the land as God had promised they would.  They came back and 10 spies reported, “There are giants in the land and we are like little grasshoppers!”

            That was the evidence.

Joshua and Caleb said, “We can overcome the giants.”  

            That was the promise.

While the 10 spies calculated their evidence; Joshua and Caleb calculated Providence.

The ten spies were pre-occupied with giants; Caleb and Joshua were preoccupied with God.

Hope happens to be a matter of pre-occupation!

And when you are pre-occupied with God . . . nothing within His will is impossible.  Even His most outlandish promises will come true.

When you believe without seeing fully, and trust in the face of evidence to contrary, you will have the necessary ingredients, when mixed together and baked in the oven of fiery trials like unmet needs and unwanted  circumstances and unrelenting pressure and unexpected difficulties . . . you have the sweet bread of hope.

Thousands of Christians in North America have learned one of Don Moen's praise songs that affirms God's sovereign involvement in our lives.

Most of us who sing the lyrics don't know the kind of hopelessness from which they came.

Several years ago, Don was awakened in the middle of the night. His mother-in-law called to tell he and his wife of a tragic car accident that would impact their entire family.  Don’s wife's sister, Susan and her husband, along with their four little boys were on a trip when tragedy struck.  They were in a car accident and all of them were seriously injured, including their 8 year old son who would die.  

As Don and his wife grieved and poured out their hearts to the Lord, they felt helpless at communicating any kind of hope Susan and Craig.

Don recalls asking the Lord to help him express hope in some way to his family members.  

In a matter of a very short time, Don scratched out some lyrics and composed the music for a chorus that, to this day, gives believers a deep sense of hope in midst of difficult times.  These are the lyrics:

God will make a way when there seems to be no way. He works in ways we cannot see. He will make a way for me.
He will be my guide; hold me closely to his side.
With love and strength for each new day, He will make a way.

Citation: Don Moen, God Will Make a Way, (c) 1990 Integrity's Hosanna Music/ASCAP

This song makes me think of Jeremiah’s inspired lyrics which sounded familiar,  “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:11)

To put it simply, the only way to have hope, is to have Him.  The only way to possess hope, is to pursue after Him.

What kind of life is the life of hope?  Is it all just waiting and wondering?

Near the end of this letter to the Roman believers, Paul promised those who would live like Abraham, in faith and hope, this kind of life “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

What kind of life is that?  The Abraham-life . . . the only life worth living!

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