Hebrews 11:29–12:2 (NRSV)
The Faith of Other Israelite Heroes
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
The Example of Jesus
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
What is faith? We asked that question last week and again it remains. When theology tells us that we are saved by Grace through faith, it is a legitimate question to ask. Especially if the grace that we received and continue to receive from God through Christ is given through faith. Last week the writer of Hebrews told us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is assurance and conviction, faith is a lifestyle based in hope. This seemingly simple concept is one that has been twisted throughout the history of the church. Faith is unquestioning submission, faith is magic, faith is logical theology, and faith is… we can add our own statements into this. Every culture adds their own interpretation to what they would like faith to be, each of those concepts tend to fall short. They fail because they tend to place their hope in the wrong entity.
So I ask again, “what is faith?” What is faith in our lives here today? If faith is a lifestyle based in hope what does that look like?
The writer of Hebrews speaks about faith by looking at the history of the religious community. It is important to remember the history of those that have gone before us because often in their lives we can catch a glimpse, a brief testimony or witness to how these people we often consider heroes were able to press on through the struggles that they faced. I want us to stop there just for a moment. If we look at this list, this brief history of faith, this hall of fame there is something that runs through it from the start to the finish. Each of these people were given hope for something amazing in the future, but they lived through struggle to get there, and in some cases what they saw in their own lifetimes were just a faint reflection of the amazing blessing that those of us that came after them received because of their faithfulness.
The children of Israel after leaving bondage in Egypt were caught between a sea and a pressing army. Not just any army but the most technologically advanced and conditioned army of the world at that time. They stood there on the banks of the sea, listening to their leader telling them that God will get them across safely. Army behind, water before, and inhospitable wilderness all around. In our minds all is lost but there was hope. There was this promise that God was going to take them to the land that was promised to them through their father Abraham, a land flowing with milk and honey. I want us to look at this scene in our mind’s eye. Imagine yourself right there on the shore feeling the mist and salty spray hitting your face, and then hearing the command to walk forward. To simply walk one foot in front of the other as God pushed the water away so you would not even get mud on your shoes. Imagine this scene, I really want us to imagine it because this speaks volumes about true faith.
Today our concepts of faith are so often twisted they go from one extreme to the other. There are those that equate faith with governance, there are those that equate faith with theological concepts, there are many who actually believe faith to be a magical force, where if the proper amount of faith and the proper words are spoken anything can leap into existence. Tell me how those things help you as you are standing on the shore of a sea with the world’s greatest army thundering behind you?
How did they get across that sea? God told them to face their fears and to walk forward, and to lift up their hands in praise. Faith is not magic, it is not blind obedience but it is trusting that God will do what He promises to do. Each of these stories have a similar theme. Something before them that is greater than their ability to conquer, a claim from God either directly or through perception, a change inside those involved to the point they entrust their life to God, and then God pulls them through.
Now look at the life of Rehab. Her knowledge of God was pretty much nothing when she first placed her faith in Him. All she had to go on was there knowledge that a group of people forty years prior left Egypt and wondered in the desert. For forty years these people survived and grew. Now they were ready to settle. Imagine this story for a bit. A woman, a small business owner, a woman that made a living by fulfilling sensual desires, living in a city that was well fortified, protected by a well-trained fighting force. They may not have been the super power of their day, but this nation was not one to laugh at. A group of people was advancing on their city, this group of people did not have siege equipment, their armor and weapons were nothing compared to their own. It would be like people today advancing on our military with black power muskets.
Rahab looked at her city and the people advancing. Everything would say Jericho would win yet when she looked out at the hills to see the camping people, she knew that God was with them and she listened to the call within. Her grace was confirmed even while she still participated in a lifestyle seen as unrighteous, because she entrusted her life to the one true God.
These are both cases where the faith resulted in things that seemed to bring blessing to those who entrusted their lives to God, but what about when the trials seem harder? Many of the prophets entrusted their lives to the service of God only to find that their own countrymen would take their lives from them. Many faced torture and poverty because the kingdoms of men do not have the same values as the kingdom of God. Yet these men continued to follow God through the greatest trials. Many were even told that they would face the trials and they still followed. Why? There was hope that though they suffer for a moment through their suffering they would redirect the future of their community.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. This is why your story is so powerful. Your story like all those who have come before you can speak to the conditions people find themselves in. This is also why God commanded the children of Israel to remember how he brought them out of Egypt and to tell their children. This is also why it is so important to join Christ in his Holy Lifestyle which he taught us as he lived among men.
If we again look at the lives of all these listed the largest majority were said to have literal conversations with God. They knew when God told them to move and when God told them to stay. Back to the story at the shore of the Red Sea, they knew the presence of God, He lead them with a pillar of fire and a cloud of shade. When He stopped they stopped where He lead they followed. When God spoke to them through Moses they knew that God was trustworthy at that moment and they walked forward.
When we look through the chronicles of history we know that Joshua spoke with Lord, he was told to be strong and courageous and in response Joshua said, “As for me and my household we will serve the Lord.” He said these word with confidence because he knew the voice of God, he had seen the hand of God working in his life and in the lives of those around him, and he knew that it is only through God’s grace that they received the blessing of the land.
Faith is a lifestyle, it is not an emotion or a force to be wielded to overcome our enemies. Faith is believing in God to such a degree that we acknowledge him, trust that He can do what he says, and entrust our lives into the purposes that He has. Faith is a rhythm of life that reflects the life of Christ; making it our custom to worship and encourage one another in the meetings for worship, withdrawing often to isolated places to pray, and embracing the Spirit’s leading and calling and serving those around us.
The writer of Hebrews then encourages us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” As the Olympics are being held in Rio at this time, it is easy to consider the image of running a race set before us. As people train for races they often train with resistance to help strengthen their muscles. I am nowhere near the caliber of athlete as those in Rio, but even while I was training for track we would pull weight sleds as we ran, we would place ankle weights on our feet as we ran and pole vaulted, we would have training shoes and competition shoes all of which had different weights because if we were able to carry the weight in practice when it came time to compete and we released the weight we would run faster and have greater stamina. Unlike a race, the weights of our life are not always there for training, at times we are required to carry crosses but usually we carry weight for other reasons. We carry these weights because we do not trust that God is looking out for our good. We worry about our careers and finances so we hold tightly to the money we have and seek to control the uses of the money we donate because we do not trust. We worry about our families and our communities, we worry about the nation and the politics of our government because we do not trust that God will give us a future of our liking. All the weight we carry all the things we do not entrust to God shows that we lack faith, we do not believe and have not entrusted our lives fully to God. That is grieving the Spirit of God. We know through the teachings of Christ that there is only one unforgivable sin, grieving the Spirit. The only sin that truly holds us back is when we do not fully entrust our lives to God, when we lack faith.
What is holding us back from full commitment? What is keeping us from entrusting our lives to God? We have heard the stories of how faithful God has been to those of ancient times, we hear the stories every day of how God has worked in the lives of those around us. Yet at times we still hold back and reject the grace that God has offered to us through Jesus. Our stories are the most important tool God uses to encourage those around us, our lives are the greatest tool God uses to expand His kingdom of hope and love. Our stories can also be used to discourage. What is holding you back, and what story do you want to leave with others. As for me I want a story like that of Joshua, or Rahab. One that is saturated in the Lord. I want to live out a story that leaves everyone involved with a bit of hope. What is your story?