Sunday, August 11, 2013

Living by Faith: a sermon for August 11th on Hebrews 11:1-19


There’s a well-known trust exercise that I’m sure most of you have participated in at least once in your life. It’s very simple. Person A stands in front of person B, both of them facing the same direction. Person B gets ready to catch person A. Person A then lets herself fall over backwards and does not try to save herself; she simply trusts that person B will be there to catch her. At least, that’s the theory! In fact, very few people are able to do this without instinctively taking a step backwards to save themselves. Even though we know in our minds that person B is there behind us and will not let us fall, our instincts still take over and we take that step backwards. Faith – trusting in someone we can’t see – is very difficult for us.

So let’s start by admitting this: faith is not easy. If it were, Jesus would not have had to remind his disciples over and over again to exercise their faith. Children seem to be a lot better at it than adults, which is probably why Jesus told us we had to become like children if we wanted to enter the kingdom of God. But for us adults, it isn’t something that comes naturally to us; it’s something we constantly need to ask God to help us with.

So what actually is faith? Hebrews 11:1 says, ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’. Faith is about things we cannot see. In the old movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy is standing on the edge of a great chasm. He needs to get to the other side, but he can’t see a bridge. He’s told to step out in faith. After a moment’s hesitation, he takes a step into what looks like nothingness to him. That’s when he discovers the invisible bridge. That’s what faith is: stepping out, trusting that the invisible bridge is there.

This is very, very difficult for us. In last week’s gospel, the parable of the Rich Fool, we heard about a man who spent his entire energy on things that he could see. In the words of Jesus, he ‘stored up treasure for himself’. His land was producing bumper crops, and so he decided to knock down his barns, build bigger ones, and then retire and give himself to eating and drinking and enjoying himself. What’s wrong with that, we might ask? The land was his, the barns were his, he had worked hard all his life to get to this point; surely he had a right to do it?

But Jesus pointed out that his whole life was focused on tangible things: riches, crops, food, drink and so on. The problem was, he took no thought for intangible things: being ‘rich toward God’. ‘You fool’, Jesus said; ‘This very night your life will be required of you; then who will get all these things you’ve saved up?’

The rich man’s problem was that he did not see that reality is actually a lot bigger than he thought. He only saw the physical universe; he didn’t take God into account, and the kingdom of God, and his own soul. He didn’t see those things, because he did not have faith to see them. To have obeyed Jesus, to have sold his possessions and given to the poor, would have been like Indiana Jones stepping out into the chasm, trusting that the invisible bridge was there. This was too difficult for the rich man. How about for you and me?

To have faith, Hebrews tells us, is to see that the world is a lot bigger than we think it is. We aren’t limited to what we can discover with our five senses. We aren’t limited to the years we will live on this earth. There’s a new world coming, the world of the kingdom of God, and it will last forever. To have faith means to invest ourselves in that kingdom – the one we can’t see - rather than limiting ourselves to the world we can see with our eyes right now. Look at Hebrews 11: 13-16:
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, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 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.

Two people die on the same day. One has been rich and successful; he has amassed great wealth and has had a lot of influence in the world of commerce and politics. Religion? No thanks, he didn’t believe in all that stuff, because he couldn’t see it, and ‘seeing is believing’. The other person lived a very simple and modest life, with few possessions; she gave a lot of time and energy to caring for the poor and needy, lived a life of prayer, and trusted God to provide for her needs – which were simple and few. The first person’s name was known all over the world. The second person’s name was known only to her family and friends and to a few of the people she had helped. But ‘God was not ashamed to be called her God’, says Hebrews; indeed, he has prepared a city for her.

Faith, you see, includes action. Nowadays we tend to be obsessed with our emotions, and so when we’re asked if we have faith, we tend to focus on our navel and try to feel faith. But no one in the Bible is asked to feel faith. Faith is often a simple act of obedience. Think of Jesus walking on the water, holding out his hand to Peter in the boat, saying, “Come”. What does faith feel like to Peter? Wet feet! Faith is a simple decision Peter makes: will he obey Jesus’ call, or not?

Hebrews reminds us of the story of Abraham in Genesis. Abraham lived in the city of Haran, and one day, we aren’t told how, he heard the voice of God telling him to leave his home and his father’s family and go to a new land that God would lead him to – the land we now know as Israel. Hebrews 11 tells us the story:
‘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. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Hebrews 11:8-10).

Let’s acknowledge that there were all sorts of good reasons for Abraham not to do what God was telling him. Where was this land he was being called to go to? God didn’t tell him; what he basically said was, ‘Do as I say, and I’ll tell you where we’re going on the way’. But where would the watering holes be, so that Abraham could keep his flocks and herds alive on the way? What were the people like in the country he was going to? Were they friends or enemies? And what would they think about the fact that an invisible God had told Abraham that he would give their land to him? Would they be happy about that, or would they see Abraham as an enemy and an invader?

Let’s acknowledge the fact that we are often in the same situation as Abraham. Common sense is rarely on the side of faith! There are often all sorts of good, common sense reasons for us not to obey Jesus. Sell your possessions and give to the poor? Really? Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth? Don’t retaliate when someone attacks you? Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you? The list goes on. What does all this have to do with common sense? Not much! And yet this is our Lord talking here.

In the early 1960s my Dad was working as a commercial artist, but was feeling strongly that he was being called to offer himself for ordination. He was married, with two small boys, and he didn’t have a university degree; there were all sorts of problems and obstacles in the way that were causing him to hesitate. But one day their minister said to my Mum and Dad, “If you wait until all the problems are solved, you’ll wait forever”. And they realized that what was being asked of them was a simple step of obedient faith.

What it all boils down to is this: there is Jesus, standing on the water. Here am I in the boat. Jesus is holding out his hand to me and saying, “Come”. Faith, in this instance, means obedience. It means trusting that, if Jesus is calling me to do something, then looking after me while I’m obeying him becomes his responsibility. I am person A, willing to fall into the arms of Jesus without making any attempt to preserve myself, simply because he has commanded me to do it. Hebrews 11:8 says, ‘By faith, Abraham obeyed…’

But that’s not all that Abraham did. Hebrews goes on to remind us of how God worked a miracle in his life. Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children, and they were both old; Sarah was long past childbearing age. And yet God had promised them that they would be ancestors of a great nation. And so in fact the miracle happened: in her old age Sarah conceived and gave birth to a son, Isaac, who became the ancestor of the nation of Israel. This is how Hebrews 11 tells the story:
By faith (Abraham) received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendents were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore” (Hebrews 11:11-12).

This all sounds wonderful; God made a promise to Abraham, Abraham believed the promise, and so, at the right time, wrinkled old Sarah had a miracle baby, Isaac, even though it was physically impossible for her to do so.

In fact, as the first recipients of the letter to the Hebrews knew quite well, the story was a little more complicated than that! There’s the little detail that twenty-five years passed between the time the promise was given and the time it was fulfilled. There’s the fact that Abraham and Sarah’s faith was not always steady during that time. At one point Sarah, obviously thinking that ‘God helps those who help themselves’, decided that Abraham should sleep with her slave girl and have a child by her; this was accepted practice in those days, and the child would be counted as belonging to the master and his wife, not the slave girl. And so Abraham did as Sarah suggested, and the result was his son Ishmael. In other words, Abraham and Sarah weren’t exactly shining examples of unwavering faith.

Hebrews skips over a few of these little details, but I’m so grateful that Genesis does not; Genesis tells the story of a couple I can identify with. Sometimes they found it easy to trust in God, sometimes not; sometimes they got it right, sometimes they made mistakes. And at the end, by his grace, God was able to do a miracle in their lives: a miracle that was totally dependent on God, and not on how much faith Abraham and Sarah were feeling at any given time.

I was reminded of this during our holidays when we were visiting our old home in Arborfield, Saskatchewan. I served as a minister there from 1979 to 1984; Marci and I were newly married, and we were barely out of our childhood ourselves. There’s a way of telling the story of our five years there that’s closer to the Hebrews story: we lived by faith, and people’s lives were changed by the gospel. But the reality is in fact closer to the Genesis story: I was a new minister, I thought I knew it all, but really I didn’t, and I made lots of mistakes. And yet, thirty years later, that tiny little church is still healthy, and we can sit and have coffee with the kids who were in our youth group, who are following Christ today and trying to raise their kids to do the same thing. I’m so glad that all of that was dependent on the power of God and not on any skill or expertise that I had or didn’t have. By faith we were able to have spiritual kids, and I have to say that I’m proud of them!

We’ve seen that by faith Abraham obeyed God’s call, and that by faith he and Sarah were able to have a child when it was physically impossible for them to do that. There’s one more thing about Abraham in Hebrews 11, a very hard thing. I’d rather not mention it to you, but honesty requires that I do so. Here it is:
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendents shall be named for you”. He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead – and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back (11:17-19).

Once again, Genesis fills out the story for us. Some years after Isaac was born, God spoke to Abraham again and told him to go to a certain mountain to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Human sacrifice of one’s children was apparently common practice among the Canaanites, but up to this point Abraham hadn’t had any inkling that his God was interested in that kind of thing. Nonetheless, he made the journey – it took three days – and when they got there, he bound his son, put him on the altar, took a knife and prepared to kill him. At the last moment an angel intervened, and pointed out a ram caught in a thicket for Abraham to offer instead of his son. God said to Abraham, “Now I know you love me, because you have not withheld from me your only son”.

Well, it’s a difficult passage, and I’m sure all of us who are parents know we would have failed the test, and we’re proud of the fact! But let’s not get lost in the details of the story; let’s instead fasten on to this one thing: faith always calls us to sacrifice. Faith calls us to put God and his call first, and to sacrifice many things that we would prefer to hang on to, in order that we may serve him better.

Remember, Jesus is inviting us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Count on it, this will not be easy. Count on it that there are things we’d like to enjoy that we’ll have to give up because of his call. I’m sure Abraham was very comfortable in Haran, and that leaving it all and going to Canaan felt like a sacrifice for him. Was it worth it? Yes. Was it easy? No.

Where would you draw the line? What if God called you to move to the inner city and serve the people there? What if he called you to open your home to strangers? What if he called you to leave a well-paying job and offer yourself for ordination as a priest? What if he called you to serve a parish more than a hundred miles from the nearest Starbucks or Chapters? Where would you draw the line?

Let’s go round this one last time. Faith is how we live because we believe that the world is bigger than what we can discover with our five senses. We believe that God is there, that his kingdom is real, that we have souls, and that we’re going to live forever. Because we believe this, we live by faith.

Because we believe this, faith for us often takes the form of a simple act of obedience; Jesus is standing on the water, we’re standing in the boat, and he calls us to come. Are we going to accept his invitation and obey his command?

Because we believe this, we also believe that the impossible is possible. God makes promises to us, and we cling onto them, even if it takes a quarter of a century for them to be fulfilled. The fulfilment doesn’t depend on us; for us, the impossible is still impossible. It depends on God, and therefore it becomes possible.

And because we believe that the world is bigger than we thought it was, and that the kingdom to come is worth any sacrifice God asks of us, we take Jesus seriously when he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. We seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, in the confidence that God will be faithful to us.

This faith is a journey. None of us has arrived at the place of perfect faith; we all take three steps forward and two steps back – or sometimes two steps forward and three steps back. We all struggle with imperfect faith, which is why the gospels give us a perfect prayer for imperfect faith: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief”! Can I suggest that you pray that prayer for me, and I’ll pray it for you, and the Lord who is faithful will answer our prayers, and we’ll grow in faith together. Amen.

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