The word “faith” conjures up a variety of images. Twenty-first century Western culture often seems to think of faith as belief that has no objective basis. One of the Merriam Webster Dictionary’s definitions of faith is “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” From that perspective, one might have faith that, for instance, Saturn is made of blue cheese or that it will snow in the northern hemisphere tomorrow.
Christians often link faith to things like assurance and trust. In the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed, for example, Christians profess that “faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true; it is also a deep-rooted assurance … that … I too have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.” So it sometimes seems as if both our culture and Christians sometimes think of faith as a largely intellectual exercise.
Yet when this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s author refers to “faith,” he seems to speak of something more than just belief. He speaks of in the context of the book of Hebrews that is what he calls “a word of exhortation” for a Christian community that he never specifically identifies. That anonymity gives Hebrews a kind of timeless quality that allows each of its readers and hearers to, by the Spirit, enter into its story.
Of course, the book of Hebrews relies heavily on Hebrew symbolism to communicate its message. It presupposes a familiarity with people like Moses and Melchizedek, as well as concepts like the sabbath, high priests and tabernacles. Yet Hebrews’ fundamental message is clear: Jesus Christ shows us far more about who God is than other religions or their practices. In fact, it insists that Moses and Melchizedek, the sabbath, high priests and the tabernacle all point to Jesus.
Among Hebrews 11’s key themes are those of “faith” and “commendation.” In fact, both its beginning (2) and its end (39) mention each concept. When this text talks about faithful people, it pays the most attention to Abraham. Perhaps that’s why the RCL appoints the verses that deal with him for this week’s Epistolary Lesson.
In them Hebrews’ inspired author mentions four actions of Abraham (while God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Hebrews – perhaps interestingly — only refers to the patriarch as “Abraham”) that demonstrate his commendable faith. Verse 8 speaks of, first, God’s call to Abraham to leave his Mesopotamian home to which he immediately and obediently responds.
Without a GPS he starts out for a place that God has promised to give him as an inheritance – even though he doesn’t know exactly where that is. So basically Abraham leaves his settled and secure life for a life that seems unsettled and unsecure. Those who proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this week would do well to ask our hearers just why he was willing to do that.
Verses 9-10 describe, secondly, Abraham’s time in Canaan. When he lives with his family there, they’re immigrants who have no citizenship status. Today some might call them “illegals.” There Abraham’s family lives in tents, not in buildings that have solid foundations.
So Abraham doesn’t just leave home for the land of promise without a title to any land there. He also lives in the land as someone who has no ownership claim on it. The faith that equips him to do that might be more fruitful territory for Hebrews 11’s proclaimers to explore.
Third, verses 11-12 describe Abraham’s faith in God’s promise to give him numerous descendants. He lived in Canaan for nearly twenty-five years without fathering a child by his wife Sarah. Yet Abraham continued to have faith that God would give him a child. In spite of their infertility, he believed God would grant them the son they needed to claim his family’s permanent home in the land of promise.
So what sort of faith would stubbornly cling to God’s promises in the face of such apparently insurmountable odds? In verse 1 of our text Hebrews’ author tells us that “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Yet while that verse is very familiar to some of us, its precise meaning is unclear. We’re just not sure, after all, to what exactly the Greek words hypostasis and elenchos refer.
Of course, the NIV translation of the Bible translates those words as “faith” and “certain.” Yet their meaning seems to be far richer. Hypostasis seems to refer to the objective reality of our faith. Elenchos, then, appears to refer to an objective certainty about things we don’t yet see.
Yet it doesn’t seem like Hebrews’ author equates faith with that reality. So as Robert Gagnon suggests, Hebrews’ author appears to say that faith believes that ultimate reality lies not in what we can hear and see right now. Faith, instead, trusts that what’s ultimately real is what we can’t see or hear because it hasn’t happened yet.
That makes faith a radical notion in at least Western culture. We, after all, believe that only what we can see, hear, touch or smell is real. If you can’t somehow measure or test something, it can’t actually be real.
Now Hebrews comes along and claims that what’s really real is what you can’t yet see, hear, touch, smell or measure. So faith believes that, for example, God exists, even though you can’t see God. Faith believes that God “rewards” those who faithfully seek him, even when we don’t yet see that reward — or sometimes even suffer. Faith believes that God somehow formed the universe, even though no one was yet around to record that work.
Perhaps that helps Jesus’ followers begin to understand why Abraham was able to do such remarkable things. He left his home in Ur because he had faith that God had a better home in store for him. Abraham could faithfully live in Canaan, even though he had no permanent home there, because he trusted that God would someday give his descendants a home there.
Infertile Abraham could (largely) faithfully stay with his infertile wife because he believed that God would give them the descendants God promised them. Abraham could even faithfully begin to sacrifice Isaac because he believed God would somehow raise his son from the dead. Such faith recognizes that what God promises us is far better – and more real — than anything we can see, hear, smell, touch, measure or even imagine. It, quite simply, believes in the reality of what God promises and is certain of what we can’t yet see.
Yet Christians recognize that we can never muster such faith on our own. All the Christian apologetics in the world won’t by themselves convince us of God’s trustworthiness. Neither we nor those we love will be sure of what God promises unless God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit. So God’s adopted sons and daughters pray that God will fill both those we love and us with that Spirit.
Those in whom the Spirit lives see not just some bread, wine and juice at the Lord’s Table around which many of God’s deeply beloved children plan to gather this Sunday. God’s Spirit equips us with the faith that communion’s elements are somehow Christ’s body and blood for us that we gladly eat and drink.
God’s beloved people can also come to the Lord’s Supper and not just see some Christians who struggle to follow Jesus. God’s Spirit equips us with the faith that these are God’s children whom we love, forgive, pray for and share fellowship with.
And faith sends Jesus’ followers from our churches out into the world recognizing that it’s God’s handiwork rather than a place that we get to treat as we please. Faith sends us out from here to care for what we have faith God will someday renew.
May God’s Spirit so fill our proclamations of Hebrews 11 this Sunday that it fills both those to whom we speak and us with a hunger for an even deeper filling of such faith.
In his inimitable style, Frederick Beuchner writes about Abraham and Sarah’s faith in his book, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith: ‘God tells Abraham, age 100, and Sarah, 90, that they will have a baby. Both laugh. God tells them to name their son “Isaac,” which in Hebrew means “laughter”.
‘Why did the two old crocks laugh? They laughed because they knew only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward. They laughed because God expected them to believe it anyway.
‘They laughed because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because they half believed it themselves. They laughed because laughing felt better than crying. They laughed because if by some crazy chance it just happened to come true, they would really have something to laugh about, and in the meantime it helped them keep going.’
“Faith” in Buechner, Frederick, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, p. 109
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 11, 2019
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 Commentary