Now Faith is
Sermon preached at Enmore, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, 7th August 2016
Readings: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12: 32-40.
The Letter to the Hebrews is one of the most intriguing books of the Bible. We don’t know who wrote it, when it was written or the audience to which it was addressed but it has been highly valued by Christians from very early times and contains some of the best known and loved passages in the New Testament. Various authors have been suggested, Apollos, Barnabas, Priscilla, Luke, to name a few but no convincing argument has been produced for any of them. Writing in the third century, Origen had it right when he said, “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows.” However, I’ve always liked the idea that Priscilla wrote it so I’m going to refer to the unknown author as she. What we do know about the writer is that she was well educated, her Greek is probably better than any other New Testament writer and that she is writing to a community she knows well and hopes to rejoin. The frequent references to the Old Testament suggest a community with a significant number of people of Jewish background and the author’s final greetings mention Timothy and also those from Italy. The author describes her letter as a brief word of exhortation. Her hearers were obviously used to long sermons if this epistle of thirteen chapters is described as brief!
When we read the letter we get some idea of why it was written. The preacher is writing to a tired, discouraged community who are finding the going tough- numbers are down and there is little enthusiasm. Being a Christian in the latter half of the first century in the Roman Empire was not for the faint hearted. Faced with a situation like this today we might call in some experts in team building, have some workshops on new exciting liturgies, or look for a new rector but the preacher does none of those things- instead she focuses their attention on Jesus – his life, death and resurrection and the meaning of those events for their Christian journey. The author makes her agenda clear from the very beginning with her eloquent opening words, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and varied ways by the prophets but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” Woody Allan was once asked, ‘What do you think of speed reading courses?” To which he replied, “They’re great, I’ve done lots of them; I read War and Peace in 20 minutes, It’s about Russia” Well if you speed read the whole thirteen chapters of Hebrews in one sitting you could truthfully say at the end, “It’s about Jesus.” There is only one chapter in this book where Jesus is not mentioned and that is Ch.11, a portion of which we have read this morning. However, I want to suggest that although Jesus is not mentioned by name, his presence pervades all that is said.
The theme of Chapter 11 is faith. What does it mean to have faith and how do we maintain our faith in times of difficulty? If I were to ask you individually what faith is, I’m sure there would be a variety of answers. People often think that faith is about believing a list of things. We may not go as far as the Sunday- School child who was asked what faith is and replied, “Believing something that you know isn’t true” but you may be inclined to think that to be a Christian one has to be like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland and be able “to believe six impossible things before breakfast.” American writer, Frederick Buechner put it well when he wrote that “faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent and full of surprises.” The writer to the Hebrews starts her discussion of faith with a working definition, Faith she says, is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Faith has an inner aspect, a conviction or belief that we hold onto but this conviction gives direction to our lives – it changes the way we live. It is not just a head thing but a heart thing. The writer then goes on to give examples of faith in action or faith at work if you like. All the examples in chapter 11 are taken from characters in the Old Testament. Clearly many of the readers were people with a good grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s interesting that when New Testament writers want to give an example of faith, the person they so often refer to is Abraham and this is what the preacher does in these verses.
For those of us who may be a bit shaky on our Old Testament history, Abraham makes his first appearance in Genesis chapter 12, when he is called by God to leave his parents and family in Haran in modern day Turkey and move with his wife Sarah to a land that God would show them. Abraham and his wife are without children despite being advanced in years but God gives Abraham three promises: First: Many descendants. Secondly, God will make of him a great nation and Thirdly, Through Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed. Remarkably Abraham takes God at his word, uproots his wife and household and eventually settles in Canaan (modern day Israel). Years pass and nothing changes, Abraham and Sarah remain childless and they continue as sojourners in Canaan, owning no land and living in tents. Then, God appears again to Abraham and reaffirms the promises. This time Abraham says to God, ‘That’s what you said fifteen years ago and nothing has happened-we have no child and unless things change one of my servants will inherit my possessions.’ In response to Abraham’s honest questioning God gives Abraham a sign, he shows him the stars in the heavens and says your descendants will be as numerous as the stars. The result: Abraham believes God. Using Abraham as an example of faith makes one thing clear. Faith and doubt are not opposites. Abraham’s faith in God’s promises did not come easily, it was hard won and doubt was often in the background. Nevertheless, he held on to the promises despite his doubts and misgivings. Abraham’s faith was not so much a belief in a set of propositions or promises but a developing relationship with a God he came to trust and rely on. If there is an opposite of faith in the Scriptures it is not doubt but fear. The most frequent admonition that we find in the Bible in both Old and New Testaments is “Don’t be afraid.” We find it in today’s Gospel, “Do not be afraid little flock it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
We live in a world where we are taught from an early age to be fearful. As adults we are fearful of the future, we are afraid of getting Alzheimer’s, we are afraid of the effects of climate change, we are afraid we wont have enough money for our retirement, we afraid we may lose our partner; there is no end to the things we can be afraid of. Some of those fears may be quite genuine but as Christians we are encouraged to live lives controlled not by fear but by faith. Faith is not an ostrich like burying one’s head in the sand but facing the future knowing that whatever happens God is with us and for us. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” Why? “For thou art with me.”
The writer to the Hebrew says that Abraham “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” What does he mean by this? Some people think the preacher is referring to heaven, the place we go when we die. But while Christians believe that after death there will be new life in God’s presence I don’t believe this is all the writer has in mind. She had in mind something much more grounded in the present world rather than some far distant future. The people she lists in this chapter believed that God’s promises of new creation, a world free from injustice, or evil, or suffering or death were not mere words but promises to be believed and acted on. When Christians pray, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ we are praying for that day and we do what we can to bring it about in the here and now. Every injustice we can right, every hungry child we can feed, every disease we can cure, every act of kindness we can perform and every thing of beauty we can create is a sign that we believe God’s words are to be trusted and he will be faithful to his promises. Faith sees the invisible in the visible and the eternal in the earthly.
So how do we grow in faith? It’s not a case of trying harder, or even a case of reading the Bible more diligently, or going to church more regularly, valuable though those things are. We grow in faith as we grow in our relationship with Christ. Our relationship with God is a bit like a marriage or a friendship- it depends a lot on good communication. If we want to know our partner better we spend time with them, listen to them, talk with them, and share experiences with them. God longs for us to do the same. Trusting in God means having a faithful, constant companion on that long journey towards the ‘Heavenly City’.