Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the confidence of things not seen -- Anyone here who has been through a confirmation class probably knows this definition of faith, maybe not quite as well as the definition of a sacrament -- an outward sign of an inward and spiritual gift, but it is well known, nonetheless. You may not, however, have known where the definition was found in Scripture. It is found in a section of the Letter to the Hebrews that speaks to the questions of faith. What is faith and How can I strengthen mine are but two questions we might ask of one we deem more mature in their walk with Christ. Like us, the Hebrews who had decided to follow the “Way” of Christ were often challenged in their faith. We may believe that the letter was written before 70AD (Timothy is alive and the author speaks of the Temple in the present tense, for example), but the truth is that we are doing detective work. Along those lines, if you were raised to believe or have a Bible that says “The Letter of Paul” to the Hebrews, they are likely incorrect. Certainly, the author seems to know Timothy, and what the author writes mostly conforms to Paul’s other letters and what we know of his teaching. But we do not believe the letter was actually dictated by Paul. In any event, this letter written within a few decades of our Lord’s Ascension, speaks to some of those questions that disciples might have when their expectations of coming to faith in Christ were, and are, not met. And so, it is good for us to explore as we continue our focus on discipleship.
Why did you decide to become a Christian? If you can take a moment and think back, what were your expectations of your conversion? And, before we speak any more about this, even those of us who have no “conversion experience” might be able to think back on that time when we claimed for ourselves the faith of our parents, of our grandparents, of the whoever our spiritual matriarchs and patriarchs were in our lives. Did your expectation match your experience as you began the walk in faith? As a pastor, I get to hear lots of disappointments with respect to these kinds of questions. It is also my job, I think, to temper the expectations of those considering the decision to follow Christ. Many times I have been asked if the declaration “I will follow Jesus” or the sacrament of baptism will make an individual sober. I have been asked dozens of times by those whom we fed through AFM or feed through SmartChoice if membership in our church guarantees no financial hardships. I have been asked by more than one girl and only one man whether the hurt and pain and shame immediately lifts if one converts to Christ. Listening to prosperity gospellers or televangelists, one can well understand why people might be tricked into believing that a conversion to Christ is little more than a magic wand. Membership does, indeed, have its privileges, but the best privileges are in the world to come. On this side of the grave there are many responsibilities before we inherit the Kingdom. There are crosses to be born, people to be served, and dross to be refined before that day. As this author will remind us, it is a long race in which we are running. And it is a race whose map is somewhat ambiguous and who traps are not well identified.
Hopefully, your answer to the why question I asked a few minutes ago did not cause a major crisis of faith later in your life. Hopefully, if your reasons were, perhaps, sincere but misplaced, other Christians came alongside you and shared what this faith journey would really be like. Hopefully, someone came alongside you and reminded you why we gather as we do, studying God’s Word and partaking of the Eucharist. If nobody did, or if you have forgotten, I hope we will explore this over the next four weeks--that’s my intention, anyway! We’ll see if I discerned God’s will correctly.
Our author today defines faith and then moves quickly to several examples. If you do not know the full stories of the heroes mentioned, you should really take the time and go back and read the full stories. Those that the author names are human beings. They are human beings with great strengths, glaring weaknesses, a propensity to do amazing works in faith, and a propensity to sin boldly against God. Through it all, the faithfulness of God is highlighted to us, the Body gathered together in worship and praise. Why?
When you and I gather to celebrate what the Lord has done for us, we do so cognizant that this, the world around us, is not the fulfillment of His promises. As good as life might seem to be going or as hard as it might seem to be, this is not the fulfillment of His promises. Yet, because He is the One who made the promises, you and I can trust that His promises will be fulfilled for each one of us. And, if you are sitting here doubting or considering, it is not just an ambiguous “trust.” Part of the reason He calls us to read, study, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures is so that we can see how God keeps each and every single one of His promises, beginning with Abel and Enoch, continuing through Noah, and ending (this week) with Sarah and Abraham.
As with us, God focuses on the faith of HIs servants, even in the Old Testament. This does not surprise those of us gathered here today, but it often forgotten by the world. Did God need anything from Cain or Abel? Of course not. But because of his faith, the Lord judged Abel’s offering better. Did Cain think he was responsible for his offering? Perhaps. We are not told. What we are told is that Abel’s offering was judged by God, who knows and sees our hearts, as faithful. And notice the toss away sentence in verse 4, and by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. Even though Abel is dead, he still speaks to and with God! You remember the story of Cain and Abel, right? Sons of Adam and Eve. Yes. Abel was the one who was killed by his brother, yet still he speaks to God by faith.
The same praise is used of Enoch, who could not be found, and Noah, who, despite all evidence to the contrary began to build an ark to carry his family and the animals in preparation of a flood. If you have seen Evan Almighty, you have gotten a flavor of the ridicule which Noah and his family faced in light of his calling. Yet throughout the mocking, throughout the dry months prior, throughout the entire process of building the ark, Noah believed. As a consequence of that faith that God would keep His promise and flood the earth while saving Noah’s family, Noah was saved.
Then the author moves to Abraham and Sarah. You probably feel like you know a lot about Sarah and Abraham. Who doesn’t know they had a baby when they were a 100 years old? Who doesn’t know that Abraham and Sarah left the family home and journeyed to Canaan, where the Lord confirmed His covenant with them by promising to die for them if they and their heirs could not keep the covenant with Him? How many of us know that Sarah was a hottie? That she caught the eye of Pharaoh? That Abraham, the man of faith who would sacrifice his son Isaac believing that somehow God would keep His promises to him, instructed Sarah not to admit she was his wife? Complex human beings, are they not? They make amazing courageous decisions and act on them at times; at other times, they sin and do so boldly. Perhaps that describes someone you know?
Which brings us all back to faith and the purpose of this gathering. Why do we gather weekly, twice a week, three times a week around the Table? What is the purpose of this event that we celebrate? And why, why should we care when numbers of us fall for a summer or a couple weeks? We gather, in part, to look back and to look forward. We remind ourselves of the promises He has made, but we do so in light of those promises and deliverances which He has engineered in the past. The stories that we study each time we read the Bible are our stories. Each of us claims Abraham and Sarah as spiritual patriarch and matriarch. And we claim others in the Bible as well. Some of us might be inspired by Boaz and Ruth; others may prefer the dysfunction of Jacob and His family; maybe you relate best to Thomas; perhaps it is Martha; maybe it is Peter. There is, quite literally, a large number of saints to whom you and I can look for inspiration, for reminder, and for hope. Abraham and Sarah are but one example.
Often when we convert to the Christian faith, we are led to believe that life will always work out for the better. We come to believe that God is glorified or dishonored by what happens to us, or so goes the rationale behind this line of reasoning. If we suffer, He is dishonored. But if we are blessed, He proves He is worthy of honor and worship. We are right, so long as an eternal perspective is in place. The problem is when we try and take the eternal perspective and apply it to the here and now. Just as we can delude ourselves as to our own importance, we can also delude ourselves into thinking we are lower than we really are. We can focus on our successes and elevate us in our own eyes, or we can focus on our sins and failures and convince ourselves of our unworthiness. These stories exist so that we can remember that God really is at work in the world around us, redeeming His people and executing His plan of salvation. And for reasons known only to Him, He has chosen us to be His heralds of grace.
Part of why so many of the stories sing to us and inspire us in our faith is the simple confidence with which these men and women face the world, certain of the Lord’s ability to redeem their lives. Sarah and Amanda, you might remember, never experienced the fulness of God’s grace in their lives. They never inherited the Land promised to them. They never saw their family number the stars in the sky. Yet both had faith in God, that He would accomplish all that He proposed. And even when Abraham stood over his dead wife, looking to buy her a tomb, he believed that God would somehow keep His promises to them. For that reason Abraham negotiated with those in the Land for a tomb. Abraham believed that even were he to die, still the Lord would cause his descendants to inherit the land. All of this happened when they were new in the Land, sojourners of little or no account. Like Noah before them, and Enoch and Abel before Noah, each person of faith had a multitude of reasons not to believe. Some faced death, some faced privation, they all faced reasons not to believe. And yet, in spite of it all, in spite of the world’s testimony and in spite of their circumstances, they held fast to the only One who promised to redeem even death itself. And, in the end, it is that One who is our confidence and that One in whom we place our hope.
Brothers and sisters, where is your hope? Where is your confidence? How do you know, absolutely know, that whatever is currently weighing is going to be, in the end, redeemed for God’s glory? Be it your suffering, be it your death? Part of why we gather as a body as to remind ourselves of those savings works He has done in the past and to remind us what He has promised for our future. And fortified by those remembrances and by His flesh and blood, we head back out into the world as ambassadors and heralds, testifying that His Kingdom is coming near, and that all, all, can have a firstborn share in His inheritance.