Hope for the Hopeless

Psalm 23:3

    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Have you noticed the incredible number of reality shows on TV these days?  When they started out years ago you had shows like “Big Brother,” “Joe Millionaire,” and “Fear Factor.”  Then came “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” and “Lost” and “The Amazing Race.”  And now you’ve got reality shows that feature hoarders, home buyers, American pickers, people who weigh 600 pounds or more. But one of the longest running and most popular of the reality shows is this one, “Survivor.”

The most recent series of “Survivor” was called “Game Changers” and featured some of the most popular players who had been on previous shows and some of whom had won the $1 million grand prize.  In fact, one of them, a female, had won it twice, but she didn’t make it to the end this time as she was voted off about midway through it.   But I wonder how many of you would actually like to be on “Survivor”?  Dropped in a jungle, battling mosquitoes big enough to carry off your dog or cat, fighting hunger, regularly drenched with rain, dealing with conflicting personalities, sleeping on the ground, engaging in exhausting competitions, all so that you can stay and survive in that jungle longer than anyone else.

Does that sound like fun to you?  Hardly!  But just for the fun of it, I want you to put yourself in the place of one of those players right now and imagine that you are there, undergoing the rigorous conditions I just described.  How do you think you would feel?  Fearful?  Perhaps.  Anxious?  No doubt.  Angry, perhaps at your fellow teammates for not getting along with each other, or worse yet, angry at yourself for thinking it would be a neat idea to be a part of a Survivor series?  But I think there might be another emotion you’d feel out there in the midst of the jungle sooner or later, and that would be hopelessness.  Wondering where you’re next meal is going to come from if it’s going to come at all; wondering whether some of your teammates are forming an alliance behind your back; wondering what would happen if you’d get bitten by a poisonous snake or spider.

If you can just freeze frame that emotion of hopelessness for a moment, if you can get a pretty good feel for what it’s like to be out of your comfort zone, out of solutions, out of ideas, you will have a good understanding of what life is like for a lot of people in our world today.  Because for them and maybe for many of us life is – well, life is a jungle.  Not a jungle of trees and beasts and snakes and spiders.  But a jungle comprised of failing health, broken hearts, empty wallets.  In this type of jungle we don’t hear the screeching of birds or the screaming of monkeys, but we do hear the complaints of our neighbors, the nagging of our spouse, the demands of our boss.  Our predators in this jungle may not consist of lions and tigers and jaguars, but they are made up of our creditors, our competitors, our classmates.  Let’s face it, my friends.  It is a jungle out there.

And for some people, perhaps for many, hope is in short supply.  I don’t know if you can remember this, but in my sermon last Sunday I described worry as the burlap bag of burdens that so many of us carry around day in and day out.  Well, hopelessness can also be compared to a burlap bag, only it’s a bag that isn’t full of anything.  Instead it is empty, painfully empty.

The word hopelessness does not paint a very pretty picture in our minds, does it?  And yet we see pictures of it splashed all over our television screens all the time.  Show pictures of hopelessness from 9/11, starvation in Africa, etc.

Well, let’s see if we can brighten those pictures up.  We’ve imagined the emotions we would go through if we were dropped in the midst of a jungle and expected to survive on our own.  How about if we now try to imagine the emotions we would feel if we were rescued?  Or to put it another way, what would it take to restore your hope?

Though I’m sure there are many answers to that question, let me give you just 3 for right now.  The first thing you would need to restore your hope would be a person.  But not just any person.  You don’t need someone who is equally confused or lost as you are.  You need someone who knows the way out of the jungle.

And from that person you need a 2nd thing.  You need vision.  You need someone who can lift your spirits, someone who can take your eyes off the jungle and look you in the face and say, “This isn’t the end.  Don’t give up.  There’s a better place than this and I’m going to lead you there.”

And then perhaps the most important thing you would need to restore your hope is direction because if all you have is a person who offers no vision, then all you have is company.  Or if all he has to offer you is vision but no direction, you’re still lost, right?  But if you have a person who has both vision and direction – one who can take you from this place to the right place – then you have one who can definitely restore your hope.

And that’s what David is offering us in our text for today when he says, “He restores my soul.”  David of course is speaking here about our Heavenly Shepherd who majors in restoring hope to the soul.  He’s the master rescuer.  And boy, when he shows up, everything changes.  Your loneliness begins to diminish because you have fellowship with him.  Your confusion begins to lift because you have direction from him.  And your despair begins to decrease because you have hope in him.

Please note: You haven’t left the jungle yet.  You’re still surrounded by those creditors and competitors.  You’re still subject to vicious verbal attacks from your classmates or co-workers.  You’re still easy prey for those irritating temptations to come your way all too frequently.  The jungle hasn’t changed one bit.  But guess what?  You have.  You have changed because now, thanks to your Heavenly Shepherd, you have hope.  And hope makes all the difference in the world.  You have hope because someone greater than you has come to your rescue and he can lead you out of the jungle.

And how exactly does he do that?  Well, remember what we talked about before?  For starters he gives us vision.  He urges us to take our eyes off of the jungle surrounding us and instead focus them upon him and the power he has to help us.  David puts it this way in the 121st Psalm: “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”  Think about that for a moment, my friends.  How often don’t we try to find our help and our hope in something other than God – the stock market, our job, a relationship, our good looks, our health.  Now certainly there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things.  But it’s no secret that all of those things can fail.  The stock market can plummet and lose a lot of its value as it has done at different times over the years.  Our job can be gone just like that, as happened to so many in our area when World Color Press closed down years ago.  A relationship can turn sour.  Our good looks can turn wrinkled and gray.  And our health can be here today and gone tomorrow.

But God, our Heavenly Shepherd, does not change.  He does not age.  He does not fail.  He does not run out on us.  Listen to this verse that I stumbled across recently when I was working on this sermon.  It’s Isaiah 54:10 and it goes like this: “’Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.”

But not only does our Shepherd give us vision, he also gives us direction.  He made the boldest claim in history when he declared in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Needless to say, many people questioned that claim when Jesus walked this earth and many continue to question it today.  But he has answered their questions.  He did it by cutting a path through the valley of death and coming back from the grave to tell us about it and to show us the way to life everlasting.  Nobody else throughout history has done that – not Mohammed, not Ghandi, not Buddha, not Confucius.  Only Jesus has conquered death.  Only Jesus has risen from the grave.

So he has the right vision.  He has the right directions.  But most of all, he is the right person.  Think about it.  Who could possibly know the jungle better than the one who made?  And who could possibly know the pitfalls of the path better than the one who has already walked it?

I love the story of the man who was on an African safari deep in the jungle.  The guide in front of him had a machete and was whacking away the tall weeds and the thick underbrush.  The traveler was weary and hot.  Finally he asked in frustration, “Where are we?  Do you even know where you’re taking me?  Where is the path?”  To which the seasoned guide replied, “Sir, I am the path.”

Don’t we ask similar questions of God?  “Where are you taking me, Lord?  What am I doing here?  Where is the path?”  And he, like that guide, doesn’t get out a map and show us step by step exactly where we’re going.  Instead, you know what he gives us?  He gives us himself.  And as he gives us himself, he gives us hope.

We need that reminder, don’t we?  We all need it.  For all of us need hope.  Granted, some of you may not need it right now because by God’s grace your jungle has become a beautiful meadow and your journey a delight.  Things couldn’t be going better for you.  And if that describes you, congratulations.  Praise God for that.  But remember, we don’t know what tomorrow holds for us.  We don’t know where our particular path through life will lead us.  I don’t mean to sound morbid here or to pour cold water on your parade, but you may be one turn away from a cemetery or a hospital bed or an empty house.  There may be a real jungle waiting for you just around the corner.  So stay close to your Shepherd who can give you hope and vision and direction for those times.

And then there are those of you who do need that hope right now.  Your jungle has become dark, foreboding, thick, and overgrown.  You feel surrounded by predators.  You need a rescuer.  You need someone who can restore your soul, someone who can give you hope.  Put simply, you need Jesus.  So call out to him.  He knows your voice.  He knows your name.  He knows your pain.  And trust me, he’s just waiting to hear from you so that he can pour his hope into your heart and restore your soul as only an all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving Shepherd can do.