Sunset over Whidbey Island’s Deception Pass last evening was intense: still water circling a treed island, a sailboat rounding a spit of land as the sky glowed gold beneath a band of clouds, a small group of hushed observers. You see all this, but can hardly take it in; the scene is too dense to process, in part because with the passing of time, more data appears, piling on top of what’s already been offered.
There are phrases with similar impact in Scripture as well, packets of words that make a sudden impression and then keep drawing you with their unfolding intricacy. You simply have to sit and stare, drinking in what rolls over your brain. Like this statement from Peter:
In His great mercy, God has given us new birth into a living hope….
For a culture shaped by a sense of entitlement, phrases like this can lose their charge: what is presented as a gift settles into simple fact after years of repetition and we find ourselves thinking that what we have is what we deserve. Peter says no—benefits like these are due to God’s mercy. His statement has the awkward effect of implying that we’re needy—and yet, Peter does not emphasize this point. Instead, he rushes to note what God has done, and by doing so, lifts us into the breath-taking environment of grace, where a fresh start—a new birth—is possible.
‘New birth’ is a powerful metaphor, signaling promise and possibility. Beauty and innocence, too, for such qualities we routinely assign to the newly born. How different from the insistence on depravity which creeps into so much of the Christian conversation….
‘Birth’ conveys not only a sense of life but also of growth—a point Peter addresses with the simple preposition ‘into’. Again, when it comes to ‘the Christian life’, we like to speak of behavior and obedience and vigilance regarding ‘the world’—but while all these have their place, they do not command Peter’s attention here. He wants to look rather at hope, specifically a living hope. It’s as though Peter is staring at the sun setting off Whidbey Island’s coast, only to be drawn from the ledge of observation into the majesty and vibrancy of what is happening out there.
For while hope anchors, it also pulls us toward something distant, still future. This is because, as Peter says, hope is ‘living’. Large and vibrant, it is capable of stirring souls into life, and keeping them lively. That we grow into such hope is part of God’s purpose for the new life He grants. He wants us to be rooted in the reality of this hope while at the same time leaning toward what is powerful and beautiful out there on the horizon.
Which bears rehearsing, especially among those of us weighed down by the troubles of our own hearts as well as those of others’ which we encounter. For those who tend to look down more than out, Peter’s words take on both poignancy and urgency, flashing across the sea of concerns in order to catch attention and lift our eyes toward the wild blue.
By starting his letter with this emphasis on hope, Peter speaks to people whose circumstances threaten to constrict them. Look here instead, he says, to the Rock from which you were hewed, to the hope on which you can with confidence stand. No matter what else you experience, do not miss this. And, do not only long for the day when all you hope is shown to be true, but also accept that you can live now in that reality. For hope is alive and well, attractive and attracting as a sunset in its beauty, goodness and power.