Hebrews 11:1–3 (NRSV)
The Meaning of Faith
11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Hebrews 11:8–16 (NRSV)
The Faith of Abraham
(Gen 15:1–6; 21:1–7; 22:1–14; 48:8–16; 50:22–25)
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Faith. What is faith? It seems as if this simple word is one that is buzzing around in the culture from Oprah teaming up with Rob Bell to the televised preachers. This is a simple word but often it is so simple we miss it all together. Shocking I know, since all of us are here because we have faith so how could we possibly misunderstand this word. I say that because this chapter in the Letter to the Hebrews was written. It was written to people enculturated in a community that was saturated with religious fervor. A culture whose foundations were built on this word Faith.
This chapter of Hebrews is often referred to as the Hall of Fame for those with faith. You have heard that many times, and you have probably look at this chapter, studying it and the lives of which it speaks. We look at these lives, we try to understand the world from which they emerged, we contemplate their struggles, and we examine how their lives can bring some sort of hope into the crazy life we live.
I used to think history was a dry and boring subject in school. If you were to ask me twenty years ago what my favorite subjects were in school I would have listed history near the end. English and speech were at the very end because that involved talking and writing, and writing involved spelling which I cannot do. But History was third from the end because in my mind it was boring old stuff that had happened so long ago. Science on the other hand was new and constantly changing. That was a class you could really get excited about, history not so much. It boggles my mind that of all my interests twenty years ago, the one vocation that has so fully gripped my life is the one vocation that requires the constant use of my least favorite areas of study, I now write sermons to present before a crowd of people about a book written centuries ago and I love it. I love it because history is filled with fascinating people, enchanting places, and interesting customs.
The interesting thing about this is was already a pastor when I realized this love. I was a pastor who was just beginning in ministry but was struggling. People were facing struggles, people I loved and wanted to encourage and I had nothing to offer. I had nothing because I did not have experiences from which to draw any information from. I would pray and seek the Lord but it was as we were speaking different languages, I spoke broken English and God obviously spoke Hebrew. So I sought help myself, I enrolled in Graduate School and began a journey that has taken hold of my life in ways I never thought it could.
You see I had a teacher that spoke of the people from ancient times as if they were his personal friends. I had a teacher that spoke about theology as if it was a conversation between him and God and not the study of God. I had a teacher that showed me that the lives of these ancient people and these abstract concepts can speak to the conditions of my heart and can be an encouragement to others as well. This teach would then give us a common problem that people face today and would require us to write our papers using what we learned from the lives of others and the theological concepts we discussed.
This opened my eyes. The lives of these saints of old spoke directly to the conditions of today and the hope that filled their lives continues. It revolves around a simple word Faith. What is faith? The writer of Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” So often faith can be twisted to mean what we want it to mean. Some almost give the perception that faith is like some magical power that we can harness to bring our hearts desires into existence because of the idea of assurance in things we hope for. This is not faith because faith is not magic, faith is a lifestyle. If we were to study this one word we would find that faith is a deep level of trust, it is the entrusting of our future to the desires of someone or something outside of ourselves. Faith, or this lifestyle of entrustment, can be placed in many things; we can have faith in military might, governments, spouses, education, economics, I could list things all day. The thing about faith is it is entrusting our lives in something that is hoped for, but not seen.
This is where history comes to play. If we were to look at all the various things people place faith in there is something most have in common, they fail. The Apostle Paul spent time observing the people in the city of Athens before he even attempted to speak to them about maters of faith. When he finally spoke he said that it was clear that they were a religious people; they had faith. The difference was where they placed their faith. He drew their attention to a statue, this particular stature was dedicated to an unseen or unknown god. Why would they need to have this statue? It is largely because they entrusted their lives to their religions and saw failure. That is a common theme in faith. Militaries are defeated and if your faith was in that where is your hope? Economies take down turns and at times never recover as we learned with Colossae; when that happens where is your hope? What happens if your spouse’s eyes are found wondering, or your education does not open doors that were promised? We are left in a hopeless situation, broken, in despair.
The writer of Hebrews recognizes this in our human condition. We each have placed our faith in something and we have been left broken. They then direct our attention to individuals in history who lived lifestyles of faith, where they were entrusting their lives to something even greater than that of humanity. Abraham, if there was anyone in history who should have lost all hope this is the man. His faith took him out of the land of Ur to go to an unknown place. He lived as a nomad for his entire life with this vague promise that he would have a nation filled with his descendants. For decades he lived with this hope and it was unfulfilled. Yet he continued to entrust his life to this voice that spoke to him in that place far to the east. His wife was barren and he was now approaching the century mark of life without even one child from the woman promised to bear the son. He continued to live by faith. Why? Because day by day he recognized that even though he did not have a descendant everything else was working as this voice said. He had seen the land, he had the wealth base to begin this nation and all he had to do was wait for the son. Then he saw the son that was promised, yet God asked him to give that son to Him.
Faith is a difficult thing. To live by faith we are required to let go of ourselves. To be live by faith we must give all that we have over to the one we have entrusted our lives and hope that there will be some sort of return. Abraham waited for his son and then just when that son was beginning to move into second stage of life that stage when the child becomes an adult God said give him to me. Abraham was faced with ideas that seemed to conflict. His son was promised and God promised to make this nation through this son and no other, yet Abraham was to place this son on to the altar, and he did it. It is nearly impossible for me to wrap my mind around that. Yet he was confident in something unseen. A goal that was just beyond his understanding. He walked forward with the promise God made and he entrusted his life in that.
History is filled with these stories. Just read through whole chapter and see how faith works in the lives of those mentioned. Read a biography about the missionaries that went to Africa or Asia. Look at the lives of those spiritual fathers and mothers of the various religious orders and denominations. George Fox was given a vision of a great crowd of people dedicated to God, yet he was alone. These people lived their lives with a hope unseen. A hope of something whose foundations were set from the beginning of time and of which they only gain a brief glimpse. It is that brief glimpse that changes it all.
Where are we placing our faith? In what or in who are we entrusting our life? Jesus came to live among humanity and he came to a group who had a hope of this coming messiah from the dawn of their existence. He came and he lived among them teaching them and showing them a rhythm of life that encouraged a healthy relationship between God and humanity. He was rejected and executed. Many thought it was over, yet another failed story of misplaced faith. Then on the third day death lost its grip on Him and the stone was rolled away and Jesus lived. It is a fascinating story. It is a story if true changes everything about life. But do we believe? Do we trust and entrust our lives in that story. Do we believe that if God could raise the dead and heal the blind that He could actually do the little things He promises us? When people look back through the chronicles of history will they include us in their hall of fame or will be just another group covered in the dust of time? We struggle and lose hope. But God is still promising. We get tired yet God still calls us to take up his yoke. Are we people who are giving others a reason to believe?