We did not capture the audio of this sermon by our associate pastor, the Rev. Stephen Coleman, so I am including his sermon on Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16 here.
Our sermon series this month is entitled “What is Faith, wisdom from the Book of Hebrews.” A little background before we get to our scripture this morning. The book of Hebrews is a bit of a mystery. We do not know who wrote this book or when. The book is more like a sermon than a letter. The congregation that received this sermon is a bit of mess. The preacher Thomas Long describes the congregation as “tired – tired of serving the world, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayers going. Tired of walking the walk, many of them are thinking about taking a walk, leaving the community and falling away from their faith.” So much of the book of Hebrews is an attempt to encourage, revive, renew, rejuvenate this tired congregation. We come this morning to chapter 11 – perhaps the most well-known chapter in this book. It is a chapter that defines faith and then lists the cloud of witnesses, the people who exemplified faith in their life. To those of us who are tired, discouraged about life, the world, the church – we hope today and the next few weeks will rejuvenate, renew, inspire you as we move toward the end of summer to a new school year. Join with me now as we read together and listen together to Hebrews 11, verses 1-3, 8 to 16.
This past week has been a difficult week, a week of grief and loss. There have been losses of family members and friends that have affected our church family. But of course, the big news was the tragedies in Dayton and El Paso, cities that can now add their names to the long lists of places where mass murders have happened. Emotions are high right now as you might expect. People are demanding action and I cannot help but wonder, “How long”. How long will senseless violence and death occur? How long will hate thrive? How long?
In addition I have also been thinking about certain scripture passages. In the book of Revelations, it says “God is making a new heaven and a new earth. The Lord will be with us. There will be no crying, no sickness, no pain, no mourning, no death. God is making all things new. I have been thinking as well about the peaceful kingdom in the book of Isaiah where “the wolf lives with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the goat; the calf and the lion are together; the infant will play near the cobra’s den – they will neither harm nor destroy, says the Lord.” How long till the peaceful kingdom becomes a reality, till the healing and wholeness occur?
It seems fitting that our topic today centers on the concept of faith. They say that love is the greatest thing. Nothing can separate us from God’s love and there is nothing more constant, unfaltering, persistent, steadfast, wide, inclusive, than the Love of God. Love is the greatest thing but faith is perhaps the most important of God’s gifts. It is faith that can help us and speak to us in times like these.
The word faith appears more times in the Book of Hebrews than in any other book of the New Testament. Here in Chapter 11, it appears 24 times. What is Faith? Chapter 11 begins with a definition. It says – faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. In other words, – as the experts state it – “faith means that there is more to this world than the eye can see. It is confidence that when all hell is breaking loose around us the promises of God for peace, justice and salvation can be trusted. Faith is the ability to see realities not visible to the naked eye.”
As I think about this definition of faith, I think about John Wesley traveling aboard a ship bound to America along with some Moravians. One day, the sea became rough. Water broke over the ship, split the main sail into pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks. It was if the great deep had already swallowed the ship up. A terrible screaming began among the English passengers. But the German Moravians calmly kept singing the Psalms and worshipping God. The Moravians had no way to know how the storm would affect the ship and their lives. Yet they had a peace that surpasses all understanding. They had an assurance of eternal life, of resurrection that John Wesley and the other English passengers did not possess. They had confidence in something they could not see. Someone once said, “Faith is not about everything turning out okay. It is about being okay no matter how things turn out.”
Or I think about Henri Nouwen waking up every morning at 6:45 am to go to the small convent for an hour of prayer. He says every morning but also notes that fatigue, busyness and preoccupations often serve as arguments for not going. His prayer time is not always an hour of deep prayer nor a time when he experiences a special closeness to God. It is not always a period of serious attentiveness to the divine mysteries. On the contrary, it is full of distractions, inner restlessness, sleepiness, confusion and boredom. It seldom, if ever, pleases his senses. But despite the arguments for not praying and the distractions, he continued to do it because he trusted that it pleased the Lord and made a difference for him and for the world even though he did not see the results of his prayers.
Then of course there is the story of Abraham and Sarah – the poster children of faith. If you looked in the dictionary for the definition of faith, you would probably see a picture of Abraham and Sarah. They are commanded by God to leave their homeland, their families and go to an unknown place that God will show them. The Lord also promises that their descendants will be more than the stars in the sky even though Sarah is barren and both of them are so old they already have one foot in the grave. But they obey the Lord, take a risk, step out into the unknown. They pack up everything into their RV and then begin the road trip through the Middle East. They have doubts along the way; As Frederick Buechner writes, “their faith was on again off again rather than once and for all. Their faith was a journey without maps.”. But they just obeyed, followed, stayed the course, trusted the Lord, guided by the vision of a heavenly homeland that was promised to them.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It is the ability to believe and trust that there is more to the world than the eye can see, that God is working for the good despite what seems the contrary around us. We may not always see it but all things are being made new. We may not always see it but the peaceful kingdom is being created. As Jesus said, “the kingdom of God has come near.”
What do you hope for? – an end to violence and hate, unity in our country, unity in our church, peace, salvation. These are the promises of God and we can trust they will be fulfilled. It is our work to be like Abraham and Sarah, to be like the Moravians and Henri Nouwen– to follow and obey, to worship and to pray; to step out boldly into the world to serve; to practice faithful living and keep our eyes on that heavenly homeland no matter what is happening around us.
There is the story of a wealthy man facing bankruptcy who took a drive through the rural part of the country. As he passed one particular house, it caught his attention. It was needing a paint job and repairs of all kinds. The broken window glasses were replaced with paper. Many shingles as well as part of the roof were missing which made the man wonder how the house was even still standing. A young girl about the age of 8 and poorly dressed was playing in the front yard. The man was compelled to stop and talk to the young girl. In their conversation, he mentioned how sorry he was that she lived in such a poor surrounding. The little girl replied excitingly, “Why haven’t you heard. My daddy just inherited a fortune and he is building us a mansion just over the hill there. Don’t know when it will be done but I won’t have to live in this house forever.” This story led to the writing of a hymn called, “Mansion over the Hilltop” which contains the verse, “Though often tempted, tormented and tested, and like the prophet, my pillows a stone, and though I find here no permanent dwelling, I know he will give me a mansion of my own.”
In the midst of the broken down house, the rough seas, the roaming the desert – in the midst of the tiredness, the emotions, the questions – it is the hope of something better that keeps me going. The mansion over the hilltop, the peaceful kingdom, the new heaven and the new earth – God is working on these things. Can you see it? Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. We believe O God; help our unbelief; May thy kingdom come, thy will be done.