Hebrews 11:1-13 (excerpted from The Living Word)
What is FAITH? It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead. Men of God in days of old were famous for their faith. By faith—by believing God—we know that the world and the stars—in fact all things—were made at God’s command; and that they were all made from things that can’t be seen.
It was by faith that Abel obeyed God and brought an offering that pleased God more than Cain’s offering did. Enoch trusted God too, and that is why God took him away to heaven without dying. Noah was another who trusted God. When he heard God’s warning about the future, Noah believed him even though there was then no sign of a flood, and wasting no time, he built the ark and saved his family. Abraham trusted God, and when God told him to leave home and go far away to another land, Abraham obeyed.
These men of faith died without ever receiving all that God had promised them, but they saw it all awaiting them on ahead and were glad, for they agreed that this earth was not their real home but that they were just strangers visiting down here.”
You know, of course, that you are a very peculiar bunch of people – that we are a very peculiar bunch of people. It’s 11:30 on a quiet summer morning. Many people are still in bed, or enjoying their coffee and paper on the front porch. Some are already out on the golf course or heading for the lake, some are chowing down on a big breakfast at Bob Evans.
But here we are. Folks like us get up, shower, put on clean clothes and drive to a building with a steeple or a cross on it. For an hour or so, we sit on wooden benches, sing songs, hear a little speech, give away some of our money, and talk out loud to an invisible being. And we don’t do it just once; we do it week after week, month after month, sometimes our whole lives. By the world’s standards, that’s pretty peculiar.
For the 33% of adults in this country who are unchurched, our behavior is plain weird. For another 33%, our behavior is fine for Christmas and Easter, but not weekly. “People who are ‘too religious’ are odd, strange,” they think.
And we are. In a world that is now so pervasively secular, Christians find themselves more and more estranged from the dominant culture. The beliefs and actions of the world do not align with – in fact, often contradict—the beliefs and actions of Christians. Our world feels like an alien place! A trip to Walmart can be like stepping onto another planet!
The feeling of estrangement is NOT new to this generation! In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul says the oldest patriarchs of our faith – going back three thousand years– had exactly the same feeling: “[Early men and women of faith]” Paul says, “agreed that this earth was not their real home but that they were just strangers visiting down here.” That there was a world in which they were perfectly at home, fulfilled, and complete – where no one would find them peculiar and vice versa.
This way of thinking stemmed partly from the Greek’s fascination with the real and the unreal, the seen and the unseen. It was a Greek idea that somewhere there is a real world, of which this world is only an imperfect copy – a real world, of which this temporal world is but a shadowy copy.
But it’s not Greek philosophy I’m thinking when I read about rampant drug addiction, human trafficking, child abuse, terrorism, and genocide. I’m simply feeling like a stranger in a strange land!
Perhaps the #1 trait that most sets us apart from the secular world is not just belief that there is a God, that a divine being exists, but faith in God, an underlying belief that God can and will act for the good of those who love him.
The author of Hebrews famously explains faith in these words: “Now, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Noah just read a wonderful paraphrase: “FAITH” is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead.
Many others have tried to define faith. According to poet Kahlil Gibran, “Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking. (repeat) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” (repeat) Both quotations say the same thing: Because of our faith in God, we are able to take a risk even when we don’t know the outcome. By faith in God’s providence, we leap and trust the net to be there by the time we need it!
Some would argue that faith is simply wishful thinking! Is it the same thing? No. Wishing and hoping are two different mental operations. To illustrate, I’ll share a story from the Peanuts comic strip.
It’s a sandlot baseball game, and Lucy is in her usual position in right field. If you’ve followed Lucy’s defensive career, you know that she has never caught anything. But she wears her mitt and suddenly a batter hits a fly ball to her. Now, it it were cinema, the scene would go to slow motion: the ball goes up and up and up, before arcing downward. Lucy runs with mitt extended – “I’ve got it,” she yells. “I’ve got it!” And still it descends and descends. But abruptly it drops in the dirt behind her. She picks up the ball and saunters to the pitcher’s mound to give it to Charlie Brown. “Sorry I missed that one, manager, I was hoping I’d catch it! Hope got in my eyes.”
Lucy, you see, confuses hope with wishful thinking. Wishful thinking expects what has never happened before — the rosy view that something will happen even though there has been no effort or no improvement. It’s like wishing to win the lottery even though we’ve never bought a ticket, or like wishing for no cavities even though we don’t brush our teeth. Or wishing for an A in a course for which we’ve never studied.
Hope, on the other hand, begins with an honest acceptance of what is real. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans the 8th chapter we read these verses: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed to us, of for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing the children of God. The creation was subjected to futility not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope. And again we know that all things work together for good to those who love God who are called according to his purpose.
Paul understands that the world is not what we would like it to be. It is subject to the laws of physics including space and time; and human beings were endowed with free choice. Far from being an ideal world, Paul knows that it is filled with pain and tragedy; he doesn’t say that is all there is, but he knows that realism demands that we acknowledge it. And you and I are all too aware of the tragedies and calamities that occur daily. In this imperfect world, hope springs from a realistic appraisal. Faith gives us eyes to see the pain as well as the presence and activity of God, and dares us to reach into the future in realistic hope. Faith is the assurance that the God of grace is already out ahead of us preparing the oasis and spreading the net. Now such a view of the world is only possible through faith.
We can wish that God will literally double our offerings; or we can hope with assurance that God will use the offering we bring. We can wish that God will lift us out of a miserable situation; or we can hope with assurance that God will see us through the steps needed to resolve it. We can wish that our dying friend be spontaneously healed; or we can hope that she draw nearer to God, be comforted and ultimately healed as God sees fit. In this kind of realistic hope, God works miracles – again and again, time after time.
The Book of Hebrews is, basically, a summation of Old Testament stories about God’s amazing faithfulness to our forefathers. The author says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” Look at our ancestors and see what certain faith they had! Abraham trusted God so much that he picked up his family and herds and moved to an unknown land. His wife, Sarah, though 96, prepared a nursery for the baby that God promised to her. Noah so believed in God’s deliverance that he built an arc on dry land. Moses so trusted God’s promises that he dared to lead over a million Israelites into exile. By his certain faith, David picked up a slingshot against the giant Goliath. And, the author of Hebrews concludes, our faith is perfected by Jesus Christ himself, who endured excruciating pain on a cross, disregarding its shame, because he trusted that God would bring about that which God promised – whether in his lifetime or the next. The stories go on and on, because the author of this eloquent letter to the Hebrews wants us to know that our God has been faithful, will be faithful, has answered prayer, will answer prayer. We can hope with confidence – bet everything they have– on God. Because God delivers!
There is no doubt that our faith is also strengthened by our own personal stories of God’s grace and salvation, and the stories of our church and congregation. Many of you sitting here can see in your mind’s eye the faces and shapes of those who built and served this church in years gone by — the saints, now gone, who placed their certain hope in God and worked toward that which God promised. Sitting in this sanctuary, participating in the liturgy, listening to this organ and piano, we enjoy the fruits of their labor. We also pick up the task where they left off.
Likewise, in our families, we do well to remember those whose faith led us to be here this morning, whose example we have lived by, and whose spiritual gifts we have benefited from. WHO? [My personal cloud of witnesses includes my parents, my grandparents, former pastors, Christian friends and roommates, other pastors and mentors within the presbytery, Christian writers and theologians. At a family reunion yesterday, we paused to thank God for the lives of our fathers, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, and brothers now gone from the body but alive with Christ. ]
So where does this assured faith come from? Perhaps you are at a juncture in your life where you need to step out in faith. You believe that your intention is in keeping with God’s will, that it is what God has prepared for you, but how do you get the kind of faith that allows you to step out into the unknown? Where does it come from?
The Epistle of James answers the question succinctly: “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” Faith comes from God, and we must continually put ourselves in God’s presence. How? We draw close to God as we draw close to anyone – through daily, hourly, face-to-face conversation. Conversation with God takes the form of frequent, ardent, heart-pouring prayer. “You do not have because you do not ask,” says James 4:2. Therefore we must ask God to deepen our faith.
If there is a single message in the Letter to the Hebrews, it is simply “Draw near to God.” Get close. Even though you are going to be perceived as peculiar. Don’t worry about it. It’s a compliment. Abraham, Moses, Noah, Sarah, Mary . . . and Jesus were peculiar. “Therefore, surrounded as we are by a great cloud of peculiar saints, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” AMEN.
Present and eternal God, We thank you for the cloud of witnesses whose spirit surrounds us, whose gifts enrich us, whose example inspires us. We ask that our lives in some small part measure up to those we remember. In faith, of God, we seek your grace.
In faith, we live our lives against the current of the world, struggling daily to hear your voice, to discern your will, to stand firm against sinful influences that tempt us. In faith, O God, we seek your grace.
In faith, like Abraham, we journey into new territory, forsaking what is familiar and comfortable, hoping to attain the promise of new life in a better place. In faith, O God, we seek your grace.
In faith, like Moses, we attempt to lead though frightened and uncertain. We feel inadequate to the task, and yet, In faith, O God, we seek your grace.
In faith, like Mary and Martha, we cry out to spare the lives of those who are dying, and to heal our brother, our sister, our mother, our friend. Today, we beg healing for . . . . In faith, O God, we seek your grace.
In faith, like Mary the mother of Christ, we answer your call, even though the answer will turn our lives inside out. We strive to trust your promise of joy, and accept the truth that your purpose may not be accomplished in our lifetimes, and yet it is sure and believable. In faith, O God, we seek your grace.
And in faith, we pray the prayer that Christ prayed . . . Our father . . . AMEN