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We’re in the home stretch of our look at Hebrews. Chapters 11, 12, and 13. Last week we talked about faith, hope, and love. Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. The final three chapters of Hebrews each speak primarily of these things – faith in chapter 11, hope in chapter 12, and love in chapter 13. Isn’t it amazing how that works out? What more perfect way for the preacher and for us to finish as we come to the conclusion of the sermon that is the book of Hebrews? Let us take a look at the text that was read this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts.
What is the nature of faith? If someone said “Explain the nature of faith in 25 minutes” that would be a little bit daunting no? Luckily that is not the task that is before me today. When we’re looking at any part of this sermon we must always keep in mind that it is addressed to a particular church or faith community that is in a particular situation. This church was tired. Tired of trying to keep their spiritual life going, tired of Christian education, tired of praying. They were suffering for their faith. People had drifted away. People had stopped coming to church. What might the concept of faith mean for them?
This chapter is not meant to be a systematic theology or a complete definition of what faith means. If someone comes to us and says “What is faith?” we don’t tell them “Go read Hebrews 11 and you will understand it all.” There is much more to faith of course. I often say that any talk of faith or of us being faithful must be prefaced by the fact that any faithfulness of our own is based on God’s faithfulness. I like to describe God’s faithfulness as meaning most basically that when God makes a promise He keeps it. Love that. There is a mystery to faith. Christians through the ages have tried to figure out what role God plays in the faith that we have and what role we play. Is it God who predetermines who has faith and who doesn’t or is it all down to our free will? This is not an easy question to answer and honestly I don’t think there is an answer. God plays a role in our faith and so do we. We don’t have time to go very far down that road this morning, but a man once cried out to Jesus “I believe, help my unbelief!” We have a role, God has a role, it would seem. There’s no easy way to figure that out. There’s no formula.
So what is there in this chapter about faith? Amazing stuff. Faith. The first question that the preacher addresses is – what is it? Always a good place to start! Now, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It’s another one of those James Earl Jones voice moments isn’t it? Now, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is not something that can be proven empirically. Or disproven empirically for that matter. It’s not a matter for argument. It’s something by which we enter into and stay in a relationship with God. I once heard someone talk about the futility of arguing matters of faith, comparing it to two men who both believe their wife is the greatest wife in the world. “My wife is the greatest in the world!” one exclaims. “No – mine is!” say the other. How futile it would be to continue on down that path! It’s not a matter of empirical proof. Of empirical evidence. Of course we should talk about why our faith doesn’t offend us intellectually. I’m not saying that we don’t use our intellects when we come to God in faith. At the heart of this though is the fact that we’re talking about a relationship. As one writer puts it “Our faith in him is not a dehumanized awareness of some vague reality. It is the response of a human personality to one seen as the perfect fulfillment of all man’s aspirations and ideals.” Our Great High Priest, as it were. Don’t let anyone question your faith based on intellect or the fact that they believe you’re delusional. The God Delusion. You know this book? I haven’t read it but I always say if you’re approaching me for a discussion of faith with the preconception that I’m lacking in intellect or delusional we’re not going to get very far. I’d still let you buy me a coffee though. J
Alright so what is faith to the preacher? What was the message this congregation and to our congregation here at Blythwood? It’s the assurance of things hoped for. This is what it is. The assurance of things hoped for. What do we hope for? What is the nature of Christian hope (because you know this faith, hope and love stuff always works together, they’re always informing one another). The Christian hope is that in Christ God has reconciled and is reconciling and will reconcile all things to himself. I always like to say we don’t say “hope” in this context as we say “I hope it won’t rain” or “I hope the Jays make the playoffs.” Our hope involves being faithful to the God who has proved himself to be faithful time and time again. A God whose promises are trustworthy and true. A God in whom to believe means that we can be assured that we will never be put to shame.
This is the inward disposition of faith. One writer puts it like this – “In the words of Aquinas – ‘The act of faith has for its end not a proposition but a reality.’ Now the reality in whom I believe is God himself – the incomprehensible, indescribable, unimaginable, yet supremely real being. And, along with his existence goes a whole world of ideal goodness and beauty, truth and love. In this sense ‘to have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.’” This belief in the good, beauty, truth and love that is found in God means that faith also has an outward focus. It compels us to sit at a sick bed and read “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” It compels people to stand up against segregation, against exploitation, against injustice. The inward disposition of faith enables us to rest, to have confidence in God and God’s promises, to have pride in who God is and what God has done and what God will do. To remember. To listen for God’s voice. The outward manifestation of faith enables us to care for the poor, to visit the sick, to come alongside suffering. It enables us to act out against the voice that say God doesn’t have your best interests at heart, or humanity’s best interests at heart. The voices that say you can only trust yourself and we should run away from suffering and don’t even talk about it actually because it’s depressing and it’s harshing my vibe. I have a friend who volunteered on the palliative wing of a local hospital. I never even knew you could do such a thing. “That’s amazing” I told her. She told me that friends had questioned her doing this and said things like “Are you crazy?” as she was going in and sitting with people who were dying and had no family to come and sit with them.
Faith acts out in this way because faith perceives things differently. Faith sees things as God sees them. It’s the conviction of things not seen. Faith perceives things that we wouldn’t otherwise see. May God give us eyes of faith. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that his prayer for them was “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” We sing this prayer when we sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” There’s a line in The Little Prince where a fox tells the Prince the greatest of life’s secrets – “ It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” May God give us eyes of faith. Sometimes we don’t even know how badly we’re misperceiving things until God gives us the glasses of faith. The spectacles of faith. A little under two years ago I had my eyes checked and found out I needed glasses for the first time. For distance. Street signs seemed a little fuzzy but I thought it was just because I was tired. I got the glasses and everything sharpened up.
We get this. Eyes of faith help us to look at a Mother Theresa and see something beautiful there. Not anything beautiful by the world’s standards by any means. She would never have won a pageant. This wizened elderly woman working in the slums of Calcutta with the infirm, the lame, the crippled. Eyes of faith look at that and see a whole world of goodness and beauty, truth and love. I keep talking about the unseen thing throughout this series. May God give us eyes to perceive it. Eyes that see in a co-worker who wants to talk about whatever problem is going on in their life not someone who is interrupting us or keeping us from whatever important task we have to do, but someone who God loves and who is hurting.
Jesus talks about this perception in the Sermon on the Mount. We don’t talk about this a lot and normally when we think of light we think of letting our lights shine. Jesus says at one point though “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eyes is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” Whether your body is full of light or darkness will depend on how we’re seeing things. How healthy our eyes are. Putting on the glasses of faith – I like that!
So what does faith look like? It looks first of all like righteousness. The preacher goes back to story of Abel. Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing to God. We don’t know why. Faith in God brings about a desire to make a sacrifice that is holy and acceptable to God. We know what makes our sacrifice holy and acceptable to God. Romans 12. We read in Genesis 5:24 that Enoch walked with God and then was no more. It was thought he was so righteous that he didn’t see death. Whoever would approach him must believe that he exists (v 6). Faith, though, is never just about intellectual assent to the idea of God – like something we might check off in a survey. The kind of faith the preacher is talking about believes that God is alive and active and working for our good, that he rewards those who seek him. Not with stuff but with promises of peace and mercy and forgiveness and transformation and being brought into the presence of God without fear and without barrier in the person of his Son. The kind of righteousness that God through his Spirit creates in us.
The second thing that faith does is that it makes us pilgrims. It makes us pioneers. It causes us to step out, to go out on a journey with God. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance, not knowing where he was going. Isn’t that our lives so much of the time? He looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. He considered him faithful who had promised. Abraham was willing to step out in faith because he trusted. When has God asked us to step out in faith? He called us to step out in faith in Lawrence Heights didn’t he? He called Matthew to step out in faith, to go to a foreign country. I know he has done that for many of us here. Where is God calling us to step out in faith – trusting in his promises of accompaniment, of holding us up, of peace in the unknown. Not long ago I quoted someone on being a wayfarer – “We are travelers who are heading toward a destination we do not altogether know, but following the road toward it in trust.” This is what faith enables us to do.
Finally, by faith, suffering is transformed. By faith Abraham offered up his son Isaac. This is a difficult story of course. It presents many difficulties for us doesn’t it? Abraham had received the promise that it was through Isaac that descendants should be named for him. He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead. In other words he trusted in God’s promises in the midst of suffering – and what kind of suffering must he have gone through on that day? By faith death itself is transformed. By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. By faith Isaac saw that death was not the end. That God’s promises, though unseen, are sure. By faith Jacob, when dying, bowed in worship over the top of his staff and blessed the sons of Joseph. By faith Joseph at the end of his life made mention of the exodus of the Israelites that was to come and gave instructions about his burial. Bury me in the Promised Land because I believe in God’s promises.
The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. This is what our faith means friends. This is what it meant for these heroes of the faith. By faith the dying thief said “Remember me when you come in your kingdom.” Remember me. By faith Stephen said “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” and “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” By faith we say “Remember me Lord.” By faith we say “Have mercy Lord.” By faith Mildred Goulding said “You don’t have to treat me anymore. You don’t have to do any more dialysis. I’m ready.” By faith Dorothy Buck says “I trust you. I know you’re with me.”
Time doesn’t permit me to mention Moses and Rahab and Gideon and Barak and Samson and our moms and dads and grandparents and dear, dear friends who showed us what faith looks like. The thing is they're all around us. When we gather around this communion table and talk about one bread we’re talking about our unity and we’re talking about our unity with all those who have gone before. Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses – and they’re cheering us on as we’re running – let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely. Let us ask God to make us righteous, let us seek his face, let us step out in this race, and run it with perseverance, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of… our faith. This is the faith that is ours friend. May these things be true for each and every one of us.