The First Presbyterian Church of Blackwood
21 E. Church Street
Blackwood, NJ 08012
Sermon Notes (Sunday, June 18, 2023)
Rev. Dr. Scott Morschauser
A FISH STORY
Today is Father’s Day. We celebrate all those who have assumed that important role and all who have carried out their tasks with commitment, dedication, and love.
It is not surprising if on this occasion, I remember my own father. My dad was an avid fisherman, and an extremely competitive one, at that.
One year, he took my brother, Tommy, and me on a fishing trip to Canada. On that excursion, we caught a lot, but it was my brother who landed the biggest fish -- a huge pike that weighed over twenty pounds. I congratulated my brother, but I also warned him, “Dad will not rest until he outdoes you.” And for the remainder of our stay, my father would be up at dawn, he’d keep fishing the entire day without a break, until sunset. In northern Quebec in early summer, that meant from about 4:00 AM to 10:00 PM. He just would not give up.
The day came for us to return home. We packed up our equipment and began the long trip back to New Jersey. But a few miles down the road, my dad saw a lake by the road. He pulled over, “Just one more cast.” He took out his rod and reel which he conveniently left on top of the other gear, went down to the shore, and tossed his lure into the water, without success.
We continued on. Another couple of miles there was another lake. We stopped, “Just one more cast.” My father threw and retrieved his line for twenty minutes, with no result. We proceeded on to another lake. Same thing. Then another, and another, and another.
For my dad, there was always one more lake, one more cast, one bigger fish out there. Whatever else I learned on that trip, my father taught me about his persistent character, perseverance, and hope.
“Just one more cast.”
“We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because by the Holy Spirit, whom God gives, God has poured out his love into our hearts.”
Our Scripture reading for this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans is centered around perseverance, character, and hope. These verses are among the most quoted of all the writings of the apostle. And they are sometimes taken as proverbs about how experience is crucial in molding our outlook on life. Challenges strengthen character.
The German philosopher, Fredrich Nietzsche parodied Paul when he once said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and these sentiments can often be heard from the lips of high-school coaches, “No pain, no gain.”
Yet, some of you may know of people whose life-experiences have not shaped them in a constructive way. Instead of offering them perspective, they are bitterly pessimistic. Even worse, suffering -- past experience --has made them resentful, even vengeful: “I’ll make others know how I felt!”
Nietzsche for all of his posturing about how hardship creates heroic supermen, himself went mad, for want of hope.
But what is hope? According to standard dictionaries, “hope is a belief that something you want will happen. It is to cherish a desire with anticipation; to want something . . . to be true.”
We do certainly see these sentiments in antiquity. Throughout the Mediterranean world, there was a little deity -- the goddess of hope -- who was often appealed to, and prayers offered to make your personal wishes come true: your desire for romance; your yearnings for success; your achieving riches. You’d often see a statue of Hope at racetracks: she was the goddess of long shots.
But this being was fickle; she was linked to chance and fortune and noted for her unreliability. A famous writer stated: “One can indulge in hope if one already has advantages to fall back on- - - but those who risk their all on her, find out what it really means, only when they are already ruined.”
Hope is for the desperate. Hope is undependable. Hope almost always disappoints.
So, what does the apostle Paul mean when he refers to hope? I would like to explore this with you this morning.
The first thing to grasp is that for the apostle, “hope”--as well as suffering, perseverance, and character--were not lofty philosophical concepts, nor intellectual abstractions. No, these things were part of a story, and have to be understood within that story. Ironically, it was around a figure that the early Christians referred to by the Greek word for “fish: “ichtus” -- I-C-Th-U-S -- with the letters forming an abbreviation -- “Jesus Christ the Son of God Savior.”
Paul is telling us a fish-story.
Accordingly, when he speaks about “our suffering,” he is referring to the Fish- - - Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Savior’s- - - suffering on our behalf.
When Paul talks about “perseverance” it is about the Fish -- Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior’s -- obedience and dedication to God’s plan of salvation for us.
When Paul upholds “character,” it’s about the character of that Fish -- Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior -- and his fidelity to the Father’s Will to us.
And when Paul mentions “hope”- - - it is about the Fish- - - Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior’s- - - total dependence upon and trust in, God to bring His Story to its fulfillment- - -revealed in the suffering, perseverance, character, and hope of the Fish- - - in the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior.
That story encapsulates our hope. That one embodies the Christian’s hope. The story of the Fish, which Paul declares, is not accomplished through our dreams, our wants, our yearnings, our assertions, our feelings. No, it is “the love of God” -- his faithfulness, poured out into our hearts -- borne witness, “through the Holy Spirit.” The center of which is “while we were still weak . . . Christ died for the ungodly . . . while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
The hope of the Christian -- the Christian hope -- is that Fish Story -- the Story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior. That’s what Paul is teaching his friends in Rome and us.
Still, there is another aspect to this hope, which we cannot forget. That Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior- - - that Fish, through his suffering for us, through his perseverance in his mission, through his humble and obedient character, through his hope in God- - - He claims us, as part of his school. That we are to follow him as he leads us through the currents and torrents of existence.
That “our sufferings” are themselves to imitate and reflect the life of Christ.
That our perseverance is to endure whatever obstacles we face, faithfully through Christ.
That our character is one molded and shaped and defined by Christ’s own character.
Our hope is one which we confess is not in ourselves, in our cleverness, our wisdom, our experience- - - that’s not what makes us who we are, but Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior.
“Therefore, since we are justified by God’s faithfulness in Christ, we have peace with God through our lord Jesus Christ.” This is Paul’s mighty announcement that whatever we may have been, whatever we may have done, however the world might try to define us, the loving and forgiving God, does not toss us back. In Christ, he assures us that we are worth catching, and keeping and saving.
And that the Fish Story- - - the Story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior- - - the Gospel includes us, too. The Eternal God, in Jesus Christ, has entered into our stories, and has taken up into His- - - he has made us part of his story, and we have a part to play in his story.
That is the Hope of the Christian. The hope of the world. We are to get the Story right.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, two of the characters, the hobbits, Frodo and Sam, are embarked on their dangerous mission to destroy “the ring of power” on Mt. Doom. As they go on their perilous journey, they are mystified at the events about them, and as to why they- - - little unassuming creatures- - - are tasked with such terrible responsibility. As they puzzle it over, Sam says, “Mr. Frodo, I understand now that all those old stories about good and evil, and right and wrong, are really true.”
Some of you may know that Tolkien’s epic fantasy is really a Christian allegory about fallen man’s idolatry of power and the knowledge of good and evil- - - represented by the Ring- - - and the only way to freedom is to give it all up through sacrificial and self-giving love. It is the gospel story.
“You know, those old stories are really true.”
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he was reminding them that the stories on which we base our lives, the plots we follow, are of the utmost – eternal --importance. Crucially, Paul was not thinking theoretically here. At the time of his correspondence, the church was living under the reign of the emperor Nero, who was a very young man.
Nero was a person who loved stories: he liked to perform in them on stage -- dressing up like gods and heroes. But Nero wanted to create his own story. Actually, he wrote an epic poem that started with the Creation of the world, but whose end-point -- the climax of history- - - was he. He proclaimed that he was “the Savior of the world,” and all were to acknowledge him as such, following his dictates and commands, and imitating his ethics. Nero’s character was to be the model for everybody else.
Nero announced that his rule would be “the Revolution of Youth,” the center of which was his overturning all past standards. Gone were the ideals of dignity and seriousness and replaced with exhibitionism and excess. Nero redefined nature, gender, human relationships. Roman senators were pressured to follow the new order, and the rest of the population fell into line, with Nero rewarding them with food and entertainment.
This was the culture encountering the church in Rome, with its story- - - the Story of Nero, His Revolution, His New Creation, his Salvation. But Paul reminds his friends, about the Fish- - - Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior- - - of his suffering, his perseverance, his character, his hope- - - God’s story of his being with us. That it’s crucial to get the story right- - - the Story of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ. Because it will not be very long before everything will go wrong with Nero’s Story. And it will result in the Christians in Rome having to suffer, persevere, show their true character, and understand that their only hope is the Fish.
There is no other person in the New Testament who writes more about hope than Paul. The hope of the Christian- - - the Christian hope- - - which is anchored in the faithfulness of God in Christ, and to live faithfully in and by Christ. That the more we know about Christ, the more we grow in Christ, the more we go with Christ: that is the Christian hope. That is our hope.
Towards the end of another letter, this one written from a Roman jail, the same apostle recounts to the church in Philippi his autobiography, the story of Paul’s own life:
“Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. . . I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things . . . in order that I may gain Christ, and being found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, but that which is through faith in Christ.
The righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share his suffering becoming like him in death, that, if possible, I may attain the resurrection of the dead.”
I, Paul, gave up all other stories, and trusted the story of God’s promise of salvation- -- the Story of the Fish- - - Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior. That I may share his suffering- -- that I may live according to Christ’s life; becoming like him- - - that I might have the character of Christ- - - that if possible- - - I hope, my hope- - - is that I may attain the resurrection with Christ.
Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. A hope based in the Story of the Fish. It is not a wish, but the Truth, by which all other stories are measured and judged, and to which they are to be conformed and transformed.
Let me end with Paul’s own prayer for the church in Rome and for us: “May the God of hope, fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope- - - that you may trust in, and entrust yourselves to the old, old story about a Fish, indeed: the Story of Jesus and his love.”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.