St. John’s – August 11, 2013 – Hebrews 11:1 – 16,
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
The passage we read from Hebrews begins with a two-part definition of faith. First, faith is a firm confidence in things that we hope for. We take some examples from everyday life. When a man and a woman marry, they usually have a firm confidence, without any tangible proof they can put their hands on, that their lives together will work out. When people move to a new city or a new country, they don’t move into the unknown with blind trust but with confidence that their preparations will bring good results. Similarly, we’re usually confident that dentists and other experienced people who help us know what they’re doing. We’re often confident as well that we’ll make wise choices ourselves and that rough patches we have to plow through will lead us to a smooth road.
It seems that some folks are born with this kind of earthly faith. It’s a great blessing and they can benefit others.
We Christians have an advantage of our own, though. We don’t rely on our own strengths or qualities in ourselves, for these are always imperfect. We trust in God’s promises. We’re firmly confident that he will provide for us, that he’ll bring us good schools and good jobs and long-lasting relationships, that he’ll smooth out rocky roads and lead us to good decisions. We trust, moreover, that he washes away our sins in Jesus’ blood and that he won’t abandon us. He will be our loving God forever.
This brings us to the second part of the definition – faith is conviction about things we cannot see. We’ll take a couple of everyday examples again. Most of us have loved ones who are far away from us. We don’t see them, but we’re sure of their love for us and our love for them. We don’t see the future, but we’re convinced that our lives will work out, and so by heaven’s grace, we take joy in living each day. We’re glad to be alive.
The author of Hebrew reminds us in particular that we don’t see God and yet we have faith in him. Our hearts are convinced that his promises to us are true; we trust his good intentions for us. The apostle Peter put it this way: “Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with an unutterable and exalted joy.” Our faith in the unseen is a wonderful thing. It gives us assurance for this life as well as the next.
The author of Hebrews points out, however, in the chapter just before this morning’s reading, that it’s possible to lose this faith, especially if our problems aren’t solved right away and we think that God has left us to work on them by ourselves. It’s possible not to pay attention, to drift into unbelief – just by being lazy or taking things for granted.
We need reminders, then, about the value of the Christian faith, and this is what the letter to the Hebrews provides. The author gives plenty of reasons to stick with Jesus and not slip away. The letter describes the superiority of Christ. He is superior to the prophets, to angels, to Moses or any other spiritual adviser we may encounter. And because of the sacrifice he offered, Jesus is superior to Old Testament priests. He didn’t offer a goat or a ram in payment for sin. He offered himself. God promises that because of Christ, he will not remember our sins and misdeeds. The sacrifice for sins has been made once for all.
To paraphrase the author of Hebrews, since the blood of Jesus gives us confidence for life by the new and living way he opened for us through his flesh, we draw near him with true hearts in full assurance that our sins are washed away in his blood. We hold onto our hope without wavering, for the God who makes promises to us is faithful.
The letter to Hebrews issues a strong warning. If we stray from God after we receive the knowledge of the truth, the saving gospel, and don’t return to him, then Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t work for us. “What punishment,” the author asks, “do you think will be deserved by the person who spurns the Son of God and profanes the blood of the covenant and outrages the Spirit of grace?” ‘Vengeance is mine,’ God says. “I will repay.’”
We don’t throw away our confidence, then, our faith, for they will have a great reward. We take hold of heaven’s gift of endurance so that we may do the will of God and receive what he promises when Jesus returns. “My righteous one shall live by faith,” God proclaims, confident of the things we hope for, convinced of the truth of things we can’t see. “If anyone shrinks back,” God says, “my soul has no pleasure in that person.”
But like the folks for whom the Letter to the Hebrews was originally written, I suspect the people of St. John’s aren’t the sort to shrink back. I believe that you’ll hold on in faith and conviction and greet the Lord with rejoicing when he returns.
Now, after a long introduction, we come back to this morning’s text, which is one of the most uplifting chapters in the Bible. You see, Abraham and Sarah, our earthly forebears in the faith, received the same buffets and blows that come to us. In response to God’s command, they left comfortable lives in a pagan land, where they were established and respected, and lived as wanderers, in tents rather than pleasant houses. They lived among strangers in a land they couldn’t claim as their own. They didn’t know what would happen to them from one year to the next. God’s promises, especially his promise of a family to carry on after them, were delayed of fulfillment.
But they lived by faith. They didn’t fall away from trusting God’s promises, even though they couldn’t see either him or the fruits of their steadfastness. They held on in trust; they kept on going; they endured. We don’t know why God sent them on an unexpected journey, but we do know that he tested their faith and refined them and used them as the founders of a great nation of believers that’s still going on today. The same is true for Christians now. To our own eyes, our lives may seem unimportant and full of frustration, but God sees things differently, with meanings we don’t know now but that will be revealed to us in the life to come, so we hold on in faith, for the Lord holds on to us.
The passage from Hebrews describes four features of the life of faith to help us persevere. First, as we’ve been saying, the countless spiritual offspring of Abraham and Sarah do not receive the fulfillment of all God’s promises in this life. We ourselves see the fulfillment from afar off. In the words of Isaiah, “Their eyes shall see the king in his beauty; they shall see the land that is very far off.” We abide in God’s promise that we will see his face.
Secondly, the faithful people of Bible times believed that God’s promises are true. This is the case for us. We trust that God is able to perform everything he promises. Some familiar words of St. Paul apply: “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” He will not abandon us, in other words. He will bring us to him.
Thirdly, God’s faithful children welcome and embrace his promises. We live by them. David wrote in Psalm 62: “For God alone, my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” And we find these words in Psalm 123: “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he have mercy upon us.” God’s promises are a part of our souls. By the grace of God, they are always present with us, like our breathing or the beating of our hearts.
In the fourth place, faithful people confess that we are strangers and pilgrims on earth. We don’t have an earthly home that will last forever. Our home is with God. We accept this situation, as hard as it is for our human flesh, and we come to rejoice in God’s will for us. David confessed to the Lord in psalm 39: “I am a passing guest, a sojourner like all my fathers.” And the author of Hebrews wrote in the last chapter: “We have no lasting city; we seek the city that is to come.” We take part in the joys of the earth without clinging to them. We’re ready to let go whenever the Lord calls us, and he calls to us every day in his Word.
All these signs of faith show that God’s people look for a different country from an earthly one, a better life than the one they would leave behind. Faith in God’s promise of a heavenly city to come keeps us from pining for the good old days. We may have plenty of wonderful memories, but the past doesn’t rule us. Like the faithful people of Bible times, we live in Christ and work for the good things he promises.
As a result, God accepts us. He isn’t ashamed to be called our God. He strengthens us. He gives us the power to endure and the blessings of faith. Like believers in all times, we have confidence in what we hope for, we’re convinced that things we can’t see are true. So in Jesus’ name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.